Swimming Upstream: Why It’s So Hard to “Get Healthy”

Spoiler alert: It’s not your fault that it’s hard.

I bet that most of my friends and acquaintances don’t want to be unhealthy. Nobody signs up to be pre-diabetic or chronically ill. Nobody signs up for food intolerances, gut problems, or immune system dysfunction. Nobody is dying to become depressed or anxious.

If I told you there’s a possible, potential way to heal yourself of these things through diet and lifestyle, you might say – wait, really!? If you were really struggling and ready for change, you might even try changing something one day. Maybe for a week. Maybe even for a month.

But let me tell you, all of us that are trying to be healthy are swimming upstream.

Salmon literally run themselves ragged trying to get upstream, and all they have to do when they get there is spawn and die. Being healthy is an uphill, upstream swim with no real destination and no end in sight.

Here’s a few reasons why:

We evolved in an environment of “food scarcity.”

As hunter-gatherers and cavemen, eating relied on finding food, trapping it or catching it, and cooking it – all in the great outdoors. It seems obvious that there was no “UberPrey” delivering us fresh kills for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had to walk everywhere (and be very lucky) to find food in the first place, let alone be skilled enough to catch it. So, sometimes we went without food. It was never on-demand exactly what we wanted.

That part is obvious, but what may be less obvious is what that did to our bodies.

In my exposure to the world of nutrition, one very common piece of information I’ve picked up is that our bodies are designed to seek and binge high-reward foods. This means dense carbs (bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, pizza, etc.) and sugar (candy, ice cream, cookies, cakes, etc.), both of which were very scarce in our primal diet.

We probably almost never had access to these things in our caveman years. Dense carbs and sugars were like the dopamine hit of the year when they appeared. As a result, when we saw an apple, we would be biologically compelled to grab it and eat the whole thing. And because they were so rare, many of the mechanisms in our body are designed to store away the nutrients in these things – as fat.

Yep, they both turn into fat.

Actually, in caveman days they probably didn’t. They probably instead got used up in the highly ambulatory lifestyle of our ancestors. The occasional packet of glucose (apple), not to mention the stored fat, was probably essential and critical for survival.

So here’s our problem:

Now, at least in the city, we have UberEats. We have AmazonFresh. We have fast food restaurants, we have grocery stores with everything we could possibly want. Food scarcity is completely not a thing.*

Not only that, but we have food scientists, hired by companies to make sure that food optimally targets alllll our reward pathways. They understand that the brain is wired to seek and crave and binge certain flavors, and they use this to mix new things that leave us bingeing and craving and spending more and more $$$ to get our fix.

TL;DR: We are literally genetically programmed to crave and binge on these high-reward foods, and food companies take advantage of this to sell products. 

In order for our bodies to be adequately able to digest things like pizza, we would have to have a significant change in our mechanisms for digesting and metabolizing nutrients. Our bodies would have to become smarter waste-disposal systems to adequately filter out all of the non-nutritious (and sometimes poisonous) crap that is in our food to make it taste good and make us want more. That change simply is not going to happen unless we have another 1,000 years to evolve over generations – simply to catch up to the food environment we have today, and that’s if nothing changes in the food industry.

So, Reason #1 that it’s not our fault that it’s hard to get healthy:

Our bodies weren’t designed for the amount and types of food that we now have at our disposal. We are programmed to become slaves to high-reward foods and the people who are making them know and exploit this fact. 

It’s not your fault, it’s an unfortunate combination of social norms, capitalism, and genetics. If you’re trying to avoid these foods, you are barraged with advertisements, pizza smells lurk around every corner, and getting happy hour with friends becomes a battle of wits with the menu and the servers to find out what the heck is in your food.

I know because I’ve been there. It sucks. It’s hard.

Other things that suck and are hard: being chronically sick. Being depressed and anxious. Having no energy.

I chose the first one simply because I was so tired of feeling ill. And you have to be extremely motivated to make changes like this happen, given all the forces working against you. For everyone who just is lethargic sometimes, who has a few skin issues, who sometimes gets an upset stomach – it may feel like more work to do the food thing than it’s worth. I feel that. If you aren’t sick, why do it?

But what if you do really want to be healthier?

My future posts are going to contain things you can do that make it less hard. It’s been almost a year now since I overhauled my diet and lifestyle, and this anniversary has me reflecting on what’s been working and what’s still not where I want it to be.

I just want to acknowledge to everyone that anyone who does anything (yes, really any little thing) to be more healthy is a hero and a champion and kudos, because it’s really hard. You’re battling social norms, misinformation, capitalism, evil food scientists, your own body – even your friends and family.

I’m with you, superhero.

 

* This is disregarding socioeconomics, location, and systemic issues – food as an access/social justice issue is a beast for a different post.

Swimming Upstream: Why It’s So Hard to “Get Healthy”

A Lesson From Baby Anne

I have a little baby as a neighbor. I’ve become friends with her mom, so I get to see her quite often. Not only does she always brighten my day, she also frequently puts things that I’m thinking about into perspective.

As humans grow, we receive messages about our worthiness, our likability, and our identity. They come from our families. They come from our friends. They come from the particular culture of our hometown. They come from the media, whose influence is only growing as our world becomes more connected.  They even come from advertisements.

These messages are often wrong. Often, because they generally aren’t based in the understanding that everyone is different.

When I was a baby, I ate every two to three hours, and I always ate “snacks.” I knew exactly when I was hungry and when it was time to stop eating. I knew whether or not I liked a food, and I’d respond accordingly.

I have no idea how I knew, Baby Anne being incapable of metacognition, but somehow I was able to eat for fuel based on nothing but intuition. I still have fond memories of my favorite baby food (sweet potato), which I’m pretty sure I ate well into childhood (and SP’s are still my favorite today).

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Almost-Baby Anne

We all have this miraculous ability as babies. We were all capable of regulating our own fuel intake (with delicate, gentle signaling to our caregivers…right Mom? ;)). Healthy babies aren’t obese or suffering from cravings and food addiction (special circumstances such as fetal alcohol syndrome, drug addicted babies, etc., change things of course).

So what goes wrong?

The messages!

We should eat three times per day. We should eat whole grains, dairy, protein, fruit and vegetables. We should limit sugar. We should limit fat. We are fat, we need to restrict to lose weight. We should burn more calories than we consume. We should look like that picture in that magazine. We should fit into these clothes. We have to eat this and look like that to attract a mate.

These are only some of the more general messages. All of us also get specific messages that interfere with our natural ability to intuit what we need when we need it. “Should” is tyrannical and “should” be eliminated from our vocabulary. There is no should. There is only need or want and don’t need or don’t want.

Side note: my August intention is to eliminate “should” from my vocabulary, whenever I’m using it to make myself feel bad for something I’m not doing. If I’m not doing it, I don’t need or want it. If I need or want it, I’ll do it.

The processed foods!

Another thing that interferes with the ability to identify hunger-full signals and intuit bodily needs and wants is sugar. Or processed snacks. Crackers are my personal kryptonite: if I eat one, I keep eating until the box is empty (wayyy past when the stomach is full).

There is actually an entire industry (the “food” industry) that employs “food chemists” to determine the exactly perfect flavors to include in processed snacks that will make people crave more. They engineer combinations that tantalize and trap us into buying more more and more. That is how they make money. That is how we DIE!

Okay, a little dramatic. Some chips and cookies once in a while won’t be the death of us. However, falling out of touch with the needs of our bodies could.

Sugar is a particularly troubling disruptor of hunger-full signals and our ability to be intuitive. It actually causes the body to store energy through hormonal signaling, which means the food we consume turns directly into fat. We feel hungry because none of the energy was used immediately for fuel. And we also accumulate fat cells. Scary stuff.

Being ignored and/or restricted.

I won’t go into eating disorders here, because they are frightening and dark and require much deeper treatment. However, they are the extreme version of what I mean here.

Actively ignoring the body’s signals to the brain (I feel stuffed, but I’ll have one more…I’m craving meat, but it’s too many calories…etc.) will eventually turn them off. In the midst of busy lives, a sense of control is many people’s saving grace. However, control can be dangerous when aimed at the body.

Numerous studies have shown that restricting the food you can eat actually makes it harder to avoid eating what’s less healthy for you. I found no long-term success with rules like “I can only eat 1500 calories a day.” Some of you may say “but the Whole30/another elimination diet is super restrictive!” Yes, but it’s temporary, and you can eat as much as you want.

Melissa Hartwig did much research on habit formation, and she found that people more easily stick to habits if the “rules” are black and white. This is the reasoning behind the NO list on the Whole30. But, she’s up front that it’s not for the long term. It’s an experiment to figure out what your food future looks like. The key is to gradually reintroduce foods and see what happens, not to eliminate groups randomly forever.

So, black-and-white to kickstart a journey toward sustainable lifestyle change: yes. Black and white to fit into a dress/shirt/pair of pants or feel good about yourself: no.

Bingeing is the opposite, and also involves ignoring signals from the body. Using the W30 as an example again (tired of it yet?), one of the rules is that you can eat as much as you want. As much as it takes to feel full. So how come it doesn’t turn into bingeing, you ask?

Well, have you ever binged on some pan-seared chicken breast, cauli rice, and broccoli that you had to make yourself?

There’s your answer. Theoretically, and as I’ve found in practice, when we eat real food, we don’t want to binge on it. We feel full.

 

We should all be able to learn a lesson from having been babies. Not only did we all intuit our needs perfectly well (even better than we do now), we also were special enough to have someone addressing our needs as they came up.

Maybe we never had people who met our needs, or maybe we did; regardless, being an adult means suddenly having to do all that need-meeting all by ourselves.

The best, most healthy thing that anyone can do is to pay attention to their body. All bodies deserve their owner’s love and respect. That doesn’t mean that you can never have more than what makes you full. I overate some plant-based ice cream and super awesome sushi last week. But, that’s becoming an intentional choice rather than a mindless habit.

Love that body, it’s the only one you’ve got. ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Lesson From Baby Anne

Cooking Up a Storm

At the start of the school year, I decided to eliminate gluten from my diet once again. I had tried being gluten-free before I went to France — but, in the land of food, baguettes and patisseries seemed indispensable to my cultural immersion experience.

After coming back to the U.S., I realized that wheat was having some seriously negative effects on me, like chronic stomach pain and rashy hands. I also learned that I have an auto-immune disorder called Hashimoto’s Disease, which causes the thyroid to underproduce and slows down my metabolism, among other things. Research into the disorder led me to an interesting discovery: apparently, this disease is often cured, or helped, by the gluten free diet, because gluten and the thyroid have similar tissue. If I eat gluten, my body creates antibodies to gluten that also attack my thyroid because they think it’s gluten.

This was all very interesting, and it gave me a real reason to give up the wheaty treats I love so much. It’s been easier than I thought — both because I live in Seattle, where trendy diet accommodations abound, and because once I stopped eating gluten, I stopped craving it.

It has also made me cook a lot. Making things at home is the easiest way to avoid things I can’t eat. Now, cooking has become my way to unwind after a long day. It’s fun to make something that I can savor just afterward, or share with friends. Here are some of my endeavors, all GF of course:

 

I’m definitely learning a lot about cooking as I go. Now I sometimes don’t even need a recipe! It’s fun to be creative, although I still have trouble using everything I have in my cupboards and fridge. So much food, so little time.

Cooking Up a Storm

A Special Kind of Love

This weekend was all that I wanted my last weekend in France to be.

My friend Dana has friends who live in a small town an hour from Toulouse, and they invited me to eat, swim, and explore the Midi-Pyrénées with them for two days and a night.

Here’s their backyard:

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As Philippe, the father of the family, was driving me toward his house on the first night, we stopped off along the way for some picture-worthy (obviously, since I took some) views:

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And, here’s one from our walk in the morning:

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In between the arrival and the walk, we ate two big meals on the terrace, made with the barbecue and the plancha, a Spanish appliance made for their method of grilling meat and vegetables. On the dinner menu was an entire jar of foie gras and champagne as an apĂ©ro, and then three varieties of saucisses de Toulouse. Although I’ve lived in France twice now and made a valiant effort, I’ve not yet acquired the taste of some of their stinkier cheeses. However, I can now proudly say that I have acquired the heck out of foie gras. It’s amazing. The sausages were also spicy, meaty, and especially tasty with semolina and grilled zucchini. And of course in the unbearable heat, Haagen-Dazs was the only possible dessert! For Sunday lunch we had a Spanish specialty, lomo a la plancha, which is marinated pork (in a special curry-cumin mix) grilled on la plancha. Needless to say I ate sooooo much. The customary coffee or tea after dinner became my only hope, digestion-wise.

Carbonne is, by U.S. standards, a village…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Philippe put it well when he said that you feel like you’re in the countryside, but it’s actually a town which has all of life’s necessities. And it’s on the banks of the river Garonne, which means it sufficiently meets all of the charmingly breathtaking French village criteria.

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And, through all that I did and talked about with the family and their friends, I noticed some special kinds of love.

The first and most present was Family Love. Being around this family made me realize what I forgot: there is a special atmosphere of love when I’m at home with my family. The bickering of siblings, the hushed parental conversations about their children’s success, the meals where everyone knows each other’s favorite foods — that taking-care-of-each-other spirit is one of the things I miss most.

I got to experience this new family thanks to another special kind of love — Hospitality. It takes an extended stint far away from home to be truly aware and appreciative of how hospitable people can be. I was invited for this weekend into their home only because I knew someone they knew. They fed me, they gave me a nice cozy bed, they took me to and from their place, and they showed me other parts of the Southwest, and all this, they assured me, was avec plaisir! It makes me want to write them a heartfelt thank-you note, send a lifetime supply of wine (who am I kidding, they have that, they’re in France…) and, when the time comes, to welcome them into my own home and return the favor. We’ll see if they make it to Seattle one day.

And there’s a third kind that I remembered. I think it’s in some places everywhere, but in France I think it’s in nearly every small town which has one church and one family-owned butcher: Community Love. France is truly the land of traditions, and most of these traditions celebrate the intense community of village life. Philippe showed me a series of photos of the yearly FĂŞte de Carbonne, where the whole village gathers over a three-day weekend. There is orchestra music, a marching band, dancing, singing, and a huge meal in the town square. He showed me pictures of the table that he and his neighbors all get together, around which they talk, laugh, eat, and celebrate life until the early hours.

I wish I knew my neighbors. I wish there were a Fête de Redmond during which we all gathered at the Old Schoolhouse Community Center and ate our traditional dish and listened to a marching band until 4 AM with all of our neighbors, friends, and local shopkeepers. Even the scenario sounds absurd.

But if Redmond were just like small-town France, it wouldn’t be so interesting being here, would it?

And while we’re on the subject…confession:

I have a special kind of love for this place, this life, and these experiences. I’ll be back.

A Special Kind of Love

Gyro to Hero: Tales from the Grecian Isles

One 7-hour ferry ride later, we arrived on Santorini. After our first two days in Santorini, I was going to write a 5,000 word rave about its fairytaleness. Luckily for you all, I waited until my memory had done its thang and filtered through all the uninteresting (what!? never!) details and now I can’t come up with 5,000 words on it for you. Unless a picture is worth a thousand. LOOK AT THIS!

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Sorry, didn’t mean to go all capital-letters on you, but it is just as dreamy as it looks. That’s really all you need to know. But I’ll tell you more anyway.

Dana and I followed the recommendation of a friend of ours and stayed in Oìa, one of Santorini’s two major towns (the other one being Fira). Like true budget travelers, we found ourselves in a house-converted-into-hostel, run by a charming old Greek woman and her husband. She gave us the lowdown on what to do and see and how to find the rooms in broken English, which she had taught herself (“You can look the windmill here” “Coffee and tea is for every time”).

Oìa’s laid-back, whitewashed island atmosphere inspired us to take a true vacation. We saw some sights, but at a leisurely pace. Lots of rooftop wine bars were involved in our 4 days on the island. We made some new friends  — we happened to be on a rooftop with some American girls. They offered to take our photo, and we got to talking and discovered that all of us lived near Lille, and they were assistants too! We had mutual friends and everything. We spent some time eating and drinking with them until they left, a day before us. We also met a couple from Napa on their honeymoon (they screamed SoCal)  and a group of moms who were taking a consolation vacay to commiserate about having to send their sons off to college. They were the sweetest, funnest ladies, and we want to be them when we grow up.

We went on two little excursions which both involved volcanic beaches and swimming. The first was to the bottom of our cliff, in Ia, where there was a small port (as seen in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). The water was clear blue and cold.

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Another excursion was to the active crater on the volcanic island in the middle of Santorini’s caldera, and some hot springs. We had to take a boat from the capital city, Fira, for this one. We encountered yet another aspect of Greek culture: reluctance to reveal all the information about an excursion before embarking. We were on the boat when they informed us that there would be a 2-euro entrance fee for the attraction we had already paid to see! Nice one, tour company, nice one. The view from the top may have been worth the price, though.

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The hot springs weren’t hot, but they were warm. But they also neglected to mention the nice little 50-meter swim through the ocean to get to them. We braved the cold anyhow, craving a swim after the long, hot hike and boat ride.

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After Santorini, we moved on to Crete. It had been my dream to go to Crete ever since I’d learned about it, in 4th grade, as the birthplace of Greek civilization and where Theses slew the minotaur! We didn’t make it to the Palace of Knossos, but we were close enough. Crete was very different from Santorini. It’s HUGE. We stayed in Rethymno, a small town between the two big cities, and it took over an hour on the bus to get there. The beaches were much more familiar looking, and we decided that it was more representative of real Grecian island life.

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The water was warmer, too. That guy had the right idea.

It was also cool because it has some of everything: sun, beach, fortress, and snow! Here’s the view from the old Venetian fortress:

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In short, it was a beautiful, much-needed vacation. Dana was the best travel buddy, all the people we met were fantastic, and I’ll never forget the views! We made it home from Athens after an overnight boat, one more day of touring, and a flight which we caught at 6:15 AM (so we woke up at 2:30 AM…). Needless to say, I slept most of yesterday.

Next up? Toulouse! TBC

Gyro to Hero: Tales from the Grecian Isles

Acropolicious: One Day in Athens

Our flight from London to Athens arrived at 10:30 PM, leaving us just enough time to get to our hostel in the city center before the metro closed for the night. Currently, I am on a ferry from Athens to Santorini, which we caught at 6 AM this morning. Between arrival and departure, we had one glorious day in the Grecian capital city I learned so much about in my youth (thanks to having Mrs. Gatton for Latin).

Our hostel was awesome. If you go to Athens, stay in City Circus. It’s well located and has the most comfortable hostel beds I’ve ever encountered. Seriously, they were downright fluffy. When we arrived we met Jessie, our new friend. She accompanied us to the Acropolis, our first destination, the next morning. Here’s a stadium on the way up and then the view of us with the Parthenon!

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It was a gorgeous, sunny day. Not even the mobs of tourists really got us down, although it was hard to avoid getting them in pictures. And don’t worry friends and fam, I put sunscreen on. My reflective skin lives to see another day (although my freckles have emerged with gusto).

According to Jessie’s phone, we walked about 5 miles (9,000 steps) — up and around the Acropolis and down again, through the Athenian streets. We stopped for lunch, having burned most of our calories. Our first choice table was taken, unfortunately for us…cats rule. This cat was the king of naps.

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We found a new table. The street was like an island paradise with the beautiful pastel buildings and the smell of barbecued meat wafting through the air. We got olives to start and tabouleh salad, appetizers, and a kebab to share as our meal.

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We went back to the hostel for some work and an afternoon snooze (it was already siesta time), and met our fourth roomie, Kati. She’s on the ferry with us now, heading to Ios (a famous party island) for 6 months. The four of us went to dinner on a rooftop with a view of the Acropolis and a super-friendly waiter.

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We then went for drinks with two Australian friends of Kati’s who own a bar on Ios, called “Lost Boys Bar.” They had been searching for antique pirate wheels during the day, preparing to head to the island for the busy Ios summer season.  I was reminded once again of why I love adventures: you can never predict the people you’ll meet! It’s also amazing to me how different our perspective on language and travel is from the European perspective on language and travel. We can learn a lot from them.

Next stop: Santorini!

Acropolicious: One Day in Athens

The City of Brighton & Hove

Most of my anglophone best friends from this year happen to be British. I was surprised, upon arrival, to find that they nearly outnumbered the Americans, as I’d been unaware that they had a similar program to TAPIF in Britain (and they can even do it as their year abroad, during their studies). Although we technically all speak English, having British friends was a linguistic adventure. Especially in the beginning, there were lessons to be learned about common words and phrases that either don’t exist or don’t have the same meaning in American English. For instance, “put the trash in the trash can,” becomes “put the rubbish in the bin.” Trucks are lorries, “pissed” refers to drunkenness rather than anger, and I am routinely asked to “come round for tea” instead of to come hang out over dinner. My best friend Laura, from Scotland, gave out tea towels with some fun Scottish words, like “numpty,” and “crabbit,” as a going away present. Even though language lumps us together, the similarities only go so far…and the UK and the US do have very different cultures.

Dana and I finally got to experience some UK culture during our Spring Break kickoff weekend by the sea, in Brighton, England. Officially, it’s, “the City of Brighton and Hove,” and it was originally designed as a “healthy” getaway for British socialites and aristocrats. It has since become a student city, with a lively nighttime scene and an arcade-and-amusement-park pier for families wanting a day or a weekend away from London (it’s only about an hour from there by train). There were freshly made churros and donuts (really, they made them before our very eyes), candy floss (cotton candy in British), crêpes, ice cream, burgers, and fish and chips aplenty!

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After a really long bus ride, Dana and I made our first stop the pier, for a game of DDR (Dance Dance Revolution, for those of you who weren’t 90s babes). I am sorely out of practice, so while Dana beasted “Difficult” I tripped over my feet next to her. We walked down by the ocean, the cries of seagulls and the smell of frying dough contributing to the vacationy ambiance.

This was, quite sadly, our last hurrah with our English friends. They were chaperoning a U of Valenciennes trip to England, so with students in tow we went out for a drink on the first night. It was a Saturday, and the streets were crazy! The bar we ended up in had a DJ but no dance floor…so we danced in our chairs. I discovered my new favorite cider, which is Swedish and comes in many fruity flavors.

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The next day, our only full day in the city, Dana and I wandered the “Lanes,” Brighton’s hipstery shopping streets. It was a European Portland — every road had at least one cute independent coffee shop advertising cold brew, stores full of vintage treasures and colorful Asian-inspired garment shops leaking incense into the street. I touched pretty much every beautiful leather handbag that crossed my path. It was an afternoon of longing gazes and angry exclamations about the pound to dollar conversion rate. And of course we had to stop at Starbucks for our midday beverage, as we’ve been deprived of it in France for so long.

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When in the UK, eat Indian food! So we heard, and so we did. Our curry dinner at the Curry Leaf Café was “quite spicy” and super delicious (with a little serving of yogurt for us spice wimps, that is). We later went with our friends to another Indian restaurant, The Chilli Pickle, where I got some honey-drizzled naan for an after dinner treat.

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And of course, our final meal had to be fish and chips — true English cuisine. We ate it on the beach, taking extra care to protect it from the doggedly nose-diving seagulls. It was battered to perfection, golden brown and crispy and best when drizzled in ketchup and vinegar, a perfect last meal of the weekend.

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The saddest part was saying au revoir to my dear lecteur friends, who I’ll only see one more time before I leave for my next adventure in Toulouse. It was a lovely last hurrah. I’m writing this post from the plane on the way to Athens, Greece, where we’ll be when I post my next post! Stay tuned for more Spring Break adventures.

The City of Brighton & Hove