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NIDIA 24: Thirty years and then that one day..

When: 1 AM,October 28th, 2017

Where: Aboard AA 2311

My Uber driver today (from the hotel to airport) was a former professional boxer who proudly told me he was a first-generation immigrant and he loves coaching young kids. There are times in life when you start talking to strangers (in buses and airports) and realize you agree with some of their opinions about life. J is one of those people from my life. J kept talking and I suddenly felt an incomplete circle of thoughts in my brain complete itself.

Today it is 31 years since I was blessed to be born into this beautiful world. As I sit and type these words out thousands of feet from above the earth, I remember J and another conversation from earlier today that pushed me out of my slumber as a NIDIA. Also here I want to tell you why this post is very important for me to write. For several weeks now, battling through a personal crisis, I have stayed away from talking to every good friend I had (like literally. If you know me, and then I tell you I have become a silent person, that can tell you volumes I guess). I showed up for family events because family is one thing that grounds me and gives me the hope to keep moving ahead in life. Sometimes it is blood related, sometimes it is not. And it is hard to stay sad for a really long time when you have a family that will not quit until they see you laugh a lot. You take advantage of that blessing and hang in there so that you can preserve that humane side in you to pay it forward. It has now come to a point where I am overwhelmed by the concerned messages I receive from people everywhere and all that I do is flip through them not knowing what to say. So this communication is very important for me to tell you all that I am okay and am recovering.

Several weeks back, at work, I was assigned the task to read a book that one of the professors I work for had authored. I was to help create supporting imagery for a research project presentation. Click here if you wonder what I do at work.  I remember that week of the assignment. I had walked into my work supervisor’s room several times that week expressing my disbelief on how much that book’s content was making me uncomfortable and unhappy. What no one knew was that assignment made me sick in my stomach. It was hard to be reading the book and not connecting with it multiple times.  What no on knows is that I cried multiple times that week because of everything I read in it. You may be wondering, “Well wait, you call yourself a non-immigrant Padmini, this book is on immigrants! Not adding up?!”

When you live thousands of miles away from the home in a place where every day, apart from studying, working, staying healthy, a considerable amount of effort also goes into ‘fitting in’, you have to be careful. Careful to not let the process get to your nerves. Careful to not let someone tell you that you are not good enough to be among them. Reading Dr. Stewart’s book made me realize that no matter how much I want to deny it, I have lived some parts of those lives described in that book. I have struggled through some of those challenges. I have undergone similar micro-traumas like those immigrant students did in their lives. And over the time, they have only accumulated onto my mind. And my struggle was to keep going no matter what – to not let the dream die. There are some people in my life currently who are championing for me to gather my strength and nerves to move forward in my life. But mental health is complicated. In a common man’s language, broken spirit is hard to heal. No matter how best it can be restored, will a broken porcelain dish pieced together by the best expert in the world be the same as the one that has never been broken? Or as some may argue, will the viewer’s perspective decide if the patches make the mended one even more beautiful? Regardless of the point of view whatsoever, the key questions to ask for me are:

Do we have those best technicians available to us for mental health?

What is the best glue to piece a broken spirit together?

C, I know you told this to me before. But today, when I heard the same analogy from another woman, I felt a sense of calm in my heart.

Would just one average intensity poke on someone’s shoulder hurt the same as hundreds of pokes at the same spot on the shoulder for a really long period of time? If a person with Spinal Cord Injury came to you, what would you say to them? Would you talk to them the way you are talking to yourself? Think about it, would you be so unkind to them as you are being to yourself? Oh, or is it because their pain is visible and yours is not visible to the eye?

As someone told me earlier this week, “Sri, you do you first!”  Seldom will we have an opportunity to sit across the table from leaders who will look you in the eye and say that to you. You take care of yourself first and then worry about the rest. I remember them also telling me this. “Sri, if you take all the inner dialogue that you have and make it into a person and let them stand beside you, you wouldn’t be able to stand that person for one moment. We need to teach ourselves when to not hear to it.” This is the most profound sentence I have heard in the last sixty days of my life. This birthday, yet another blessed day when I got to be with my family, I made a decision to be kind and compassionate to myself first. And that also I will seek help as much as I need and won’t shame myself for asking help. I wrote this post for many reasons. Some of them are:

  • I am okay and I am keeping to myself. One of these days, I hope to find the glue that will fix the broken porcelain that I am today.
  • I have talked to many of my friends over the years who discussed with me the shaming that surrounds taking time to heal (I know everyone doesn’t have that option but for ones who have the privilege, don’t disregard it. Use it and help someone because it makes you stronger). Especially when you are on track to achieve a ‘goal’. I want to let everyone reading this to know that we cannot shame/silence the help seekers. Nor can we say that seeking the help of a psychologist is a sign of weakness. It is a science and like any profession, there are greatly knowledgeable people working in the field and then there are the others. So educating ourselves about it before shaming someone seeking help is important.
  • We cannot normalize a person’s suffering as a process of toughening them up for life. If I have a rupee every time I heard this sentence in my 8-full time years as a student, I would not have needed a humongous education loan from SBI.
  • We cannot negate or devalue a person’s human experience because they have put up a brave and dignified presence always. I write this point particularly because in the last sixty days I had people say to me things like, “Oh! You are so successful, you are so capable. You are such an achiever!” Some of them may have some truth to it. The fact is, I am not. Keeping in line with my desire to share only positive stories or life lessons on this blog, I never wrote about the experiences that have severely challenged me as a non-immigrant in this country. The experiences that made me feel very low and worthless. Disregarding the pain of being treated like that is what led me where I am today. Also I wrote this post because my mom says if in her younger days she had a way to express her views like this, she would have shared her life lessons with more people around her. She says when I can write my thoughts down, I should put them to good use.

Thousand miles away from where I call home, I found comfort in the questions that two women asked me about who I am ( I guess that is why I am drawn to qualitative research and interviews. The beauty of this form of research is: within its principles, every voice counts, every story matters). While there are many loved ones that care for me, pray for me and have positive thoughts for me everyday, meeting these champions made me realize that I lack compassion for myself. So as I turn 31 and am trying to bounce back from this crisis, I want to request all of you who read this to:

Be respectful of any pain you face in life. Don’t tell yourself it is okay to get a ‘little’ hurt in the process. No hurt/pain is little. It only keeps layering more pain onto itself. That is the complexity that surrounds our human minds.

No goal/desire in life should take you to the point of choosing between loved ones that care for you and success that may kill your inner joy (that success becomes pointless if you become a mean person in that process).

It is okay not to be able to fit in everywhere we go.

You do not know what great hope and joy meeting you brought to my life C & K! To keeping the promises and making every day count with self-care and compassion for myself. Thank you for the laughs and sharing your stories.

Karin Korb on the left in a black top, Padmini in the center wearing a  white Kashmiri kurti with colorful embroidery and Candace on the right wearing an elephant grey t-shirt. All the three women are smiling their hearts out while looking into the photograph. In the background is an open air drinks bar at a hotel with two uniformed bartenders on scene.

Note: To all the junglees of my life who will text me jokes about the porcelain dish comparisons, I will personally come to beat y’all up 🙂 Please don’t! Is emotional post pe kachra math karo kameeno *hugs*

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The Balancing Act of Marrying Together Two Cultures

When: 31st July 2017

Where: VA

A few months back I read a dissertation on the acculturation process of immigrant Asian Indians in the United States. This one I read was approved in the May of 2008 and was authored by Dr. Nirisha Garimella. When I was looking up dissertation and thesis documents submitted by Indians at TWU, this one particularly drew my attention for two reasons: one, Garimella is a very popular Telugu surname and two, it used a qualitative methodology for studying the phenomenon of how Asian Indians settle into United States. While I cannot share the detailed contents of the dissertation here, to simply explain what the study highlighted, one can say it narrated the stories of 15 immigrants settled in the US from a kal, aaj aur kal (yesterday, today and tomorow in Hindi) perspective.

"Oh my god! I cannot believe it has been so many years since I saw you!"

Fast forward to last week when I visited my cousin's family. As I was about to walk into the house, the main door sprang open and my cousin's wife like literally crushed me with her hug. Not that it surprised me! 3 full days at a conference, lot of listening and lot of talking later, a 11 PM arrival after two hours of train journey was making me feel weary until she crushed me :) Such energy and excitement in receiving someone into their home at 11 PM was so refreshing to experience. What happens after I receive such warm welcomes is a story for another time. For the next three hours I was surrounded by a family (including a 15 year old and a 10 year old) that made me laugh to the point of having tears in my eyes.

"It is very hard to describe the early years! I would wonder what the hell is happening to my body, why don't I feel healthy?"

As we continued to talk about the six years that happened between my last visit and the current one, at one point, I saw her eyes well up. This was followed by a lot of head nodding. We spoke on so many things ranging from  parenting to politics. A lot of the talk was surrounded around how healthy vegetarian food was an impossible thing to have around when she moved to the States. All through these hours of conversations I shared with her, I couldn't stop thinking about this dissertation I read. As she spoke about her own life, she would start with the history of her own life, talk about what is currently happening and then present such a positive and hopeful image of the future.

As I currently split my time between understanding immigrant perspectives, their challenges and physical activity, I am often drawn towards these conversations that happen with Indian women who move to the States at a very young age and are then trying to create a home here for their own families.

"No matter what my day has in store for me, I need to work out early in the morning. Then I can handle anything."

I woke up this morning very early and through my foggy eyes, I saw her dressed up in her work out clothes, walking over to my bed and saying "I will see you exactly in 45 minutes Padmini. I need to go work out! Sleep in if you don't feel like going. We shall figure it out!" And she is gone! I was like "Whoaa! What just happened?" These days I am not a very morning person and seeing her be so active I was like, "What the hell! I need to get out of my bed right now!" And I was up and ready in 45 minutes. Now I can only imagine what that image of her can do to the young kids growing up in her home.

"Watching what I eat is so important for me because I know it powers every living second of my day. And I am constantly trying to make the meals at home interesting. That way I get the kids to spend more time with us too " *says this while smiling at me*

You see her order food at a restaurant and she is constantly talking to both her daughters about the content of the foods. And then she leaves them alone to make the choice for themselves. Her daughter wants to snack and she is immediate to bring her a bowl of apple slices. She does all this so naturally that it looks really easy. But all through our conversations, it was clear that all these awesome parenting skills came to her through many trials and tribulations she has lived through. This beautiful parenting and compassion that is evident in her personality came after years of lived experiences in a country far away from her parents and her own land (just like it has come to many other immigrant women too!). She is often very quick to say,

"We learnt from each other Padmini. We were both very young. We moved here with no clue of what the future held for us. But once we got here, we continued to learn and evolve."

Why it is important for me to write about her?

In today's times, I rarely see immigrant women (especially Indian women) who  are physically fit and can be active all through the day. I am guilty of it myself (I am not yet an immigrant. NIDIA you see). I let stress get to me so badly sometimes that it takes me about a week's time to recover. I have often said this to my American friends here.

Self-care is a very absent or unknown concept in the lives of millions of Indian women.

And the response was always agreement with an amendment.

"Women in general happen to neglect or not make time for self care. So the additional variable of immigration makes it more complex for y'all!"

She is an excellent example of an Indian immigrant in this country, who has learnt to bring together the best of two very different cultures that she got tossed into. If I had to summarise what I learnt from my conversations with her, I would say:

  • It is important for us to wear a smile on our face and embrace life as bravely as we can. No matter which direction life throws you in.
  • It is perfectly okay to slow down, take a step back and to ask for help.
  • It is important to have a fitness routine every day in the morning.

Portrait of Shanti Kondapi and Padmini Chennapragada sitting on a cement bench. Shanti is wearing a beautiful maroon long skirt teamed with a white sleeveless top and Padmini is wearing navy blue lenin shirt teamed with a denim skirt. The background has a white wooden fences and on either sides of the bench are white flowered plants looking pretty in the beautiful Carrytown weather.

Meet Shanti Kondapi, an unsung victor of the immigrant battles that many Indians try to survive, mother of two young American girls who can out a song in your heart every time you meet them. I was on my way to the airport when I heard the song "Badal pe paon hai!" from Chak De! India when I had the idea of wanting to write about her. Her life story is empowering for me to learn from because through her balancing act of marrying two cultures together, she powers three other humans around her. Also she is not related to me. Growing up watching my sister and mother closely, I always lived in this bubble that no one else is as capable as them to raise children or to be managing a family. But as I travel and meet more people, their life stories are constantly educating me on how so many women around me are leading amazingly positive lives.

I am sure Shanti's story is not alone. There are millions of women like her around the world. But these stories need to be told repeatedly. These voices need to be heard. They need to be talked about at our dinner tables. In today's times, it is more important than ever before to talk about how immigrants are bringing in great value to the citizenship of these United States.

Vadina (sister-in-law in Telugu), until we meet again, lots of love and hugs! I will miss you!

Annayya (brother in Telugu), I won't miss you, and no thanks for being so nice 🙂 I can try being not so nice too, if you visit me in Dallas.

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NIDIA 23: Vegetarianism at Texas Woman’s: Best Leadership Lesson

When: Sometime back 🙂

Where: Denton, Texas

Being a vegetarian in Denton, Texas is not a hard job. However, when I first came to TWU in 2012, being a vegetarian while eating in the on-campus dining hall was hard. Not because there were no options. It was because veggie burgers were grilled on the same grill as hamburgers, and other vegetarian options included steamed or raw vegetables. Raised in a home where we were taught never ever to complain about the quality of food that we were blessed with for each meal, I wasn’t particularly disappointed. But then it begins to hurt 🙂 Having to eat steamed vegetables (I am a fan of both Popeye and Spinach so stop smiling.Its just that steamed veggies can begin to kill your spirits after a point). Then started my efforts to find places that made good vegetarian food on order in Denton (Will share a list sometime).

Then 2014 happens to us at TXWomans. I swear my life changed

For anyone who knows me, cooking vegetarian meals, bringing the reference of food into every discussion about high-quality human life, and talking non-stop about the pride I have for being a good cook are no new topics. So in the second half of 2014 when a new change made its way to our campus in Denton, I knew I had to hang on for a little bit longer before calling quits to my disappointment in other quarters of campus life.

Soon there was an option for us students to write to the University’s Chancellor. And the me that you know *evil grinning*, dusted off my key board and wrote to the Chancellor’s website about multiple things. This was primarily because, at the same time I was also getting trained in the nuances of educational leadership. And here it was. Changes in leadership, new evaluation and communication systems in place. I was the most excited person on the campus I guess. Late last month, I went into my writing logs and noticed that I had written to the University’s Chancellor (through her website) on about four topics.

Three of those issues are FIXED

While I can’t elaborate on two of them, I can tell you what one was.

Last month when we had a fair on campus, I walked to TWU’s Dining Services table and started praising them for providing more and more vegan options and for upgrading so many of their services. The Food Services Director calmly walks over with his hands folded and says with a smile,

You see that tall tower over there? Someone in one of those top floors, its all them! They care! Thank them.

One of the early topics I studied in my educational leadership classes was communication of educational leaders and how to hear everyone’s voices out to become an authentic educational leader. You see Learn by Doing  as a commonly used phrase on campus at TWU. Here I have learnt by watching how it is done.

How leadership roles can be class acts!

How bringing in change is hard but not impossible!

From where I come, feeding someone a hearty meal, not expecting anything back in return, wishing that they do well in their lives is life mantra that is practiced and preached as much as possible.

Since the early times when I realised that someone was reading my suggestions, I have actively encouraged every ‘complaining’ student on campus I came across to write their concerns/suggestions to the Chancellor’s website. Quite a few of them didn’t know of it and would say later, “Wow! it works! I tried..”

Last month, a friend of mine was being awarded for her research work and she was kind enough to invite me to the luncheon. I was sitting at our table when the Chancellor walked in and I greeted her. As obvious it is that it was a huge event and she had to quickly respond and moved onto greet the dignitaries at the event. A few moments later I hear a familiar voice tapping me on shoulder and saying something like, “Hi Sri, I had to go say hello to someone….”

I turn back to see the Chancellor. I am immediately trying to get up from my chair when she puts her hands on my shoulders and forces me back to my seat and says, “No, No, don’t get up. How was your trip to home? I saw the beautiful photo you posted this morning, it made me so happy!”

While I am responding to her plainly, inside my heart was screaming.

“Are you kidding me! You remember I went home and came back in one piece? Then you remember both me and my professor and you feel happy that we are happy in that picture? You know my name and you know I was travelling to go home…my thoughts were racing endlessly”

As funny as it may sound, that conversation just blew my brains. Not that I didn’t know from before how authentic she is, but because it happened to me.

When kindness is showered on you generously,

When people care in real,

When someone as important as her remembers you and inquires about you and your family,

It leaves an overwhelmingly positive impression on your mind

Collage of three images. Left portrait of Sri Chennapragada and Dr. Carine Feyten. Right portrain of Dr. Feyten's address at the awards luncheon. Right hand bottom corner image is of a vegan meal from TWU's Dining Services

Meet Dr. Carine Feyten, President and Chancellor of Texas Woman’s University.

There are some that teach you in school but then there are others that lead you.

And I am an extremely Proud Pioneer to be lead by such an exemplary educational leader who believes in bringing a breath of fresh air to the campus climate here at TWU. And she does it with a smile on her face always.

Today, at TWU, someone like me with restricted food needs,

  • Can eat 3 different types of entrees
  • Endless options for fresh healthy salads
  • At least two yoghurts and 4 options of fresh fruit
  • 2 Desserts
  • 2 options of fruits/herb induced waters
  • Locally sourced milk
  • Along with veggie burgers being grilled in ovens all by themselves without any mix up with meat

And it is because Dr. Feyten heard the needs of many students like me who needed healthier food options on campus and she worked hard to make it happen for us. How will this help her directly? May be will keep a foodie like me happy who will always be beaming her teeth out just like how happy I look in this photo.

Dr. Feyten, I love you. Thank you for everything you have been doing for us all. And most importantly because you brought good food on campus *smiling with all my teeth showing*

Note: Any of you (I know who all it will be) commenting on my oiled hair look here is going to adi vaangify from me 🙂 I am trying to handle a terrible situation with my hair and my mom’s organic home remedies keep it oily somedays. And that good day was a bad hair day. While I cringe every time I see the oily hair, Dr. Feyten’s smile fills my heart with joy every time I see it. This proximity to educational leaders and this positivity is ‘new’ for me and I am sure most of you all know why I love this school so much. It just feels like I paid a price in advance for all this happiness.

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NIDIA 22: Tears, Therapy and Truth

Over the years, I have faced a lot of backlash for my thoughts and ideas that take me forward in life. From the day I could see how surgeons can revive a dying patient on an operating table to the day I saw a child with severe spastic cerebral palsy take ten steps during gait training without a break: one thing became clear to me. Individuals with disabilities and challenges that concern their everyday health have always been redefining how we relatively look at success and failure. Across all domains. They have forever now been challenging societal stereotypes about succeeding in a task or failing to succeed in a task. History is the witness to who were observing, listening or cheering.
 
Watching beautiful stories, countless of them from the sidelines, sometimes being a minute part of these efforts, it is a job satisfaction that can never be described in words.
 
My last physical therapy case as a physiotherapist was a young stroke victim (38 years old) with right side hemiplegia. He was originally from Rayalaseema. He was also undergoing other treatments during the same time. I particularly state this here because I want many of my non-rehabilitation profession friends and family to know a fact.
Recovering from an illness, rehabilitation after accidents, re-training to handle a sudden disability: all these processes are complex and need so much help. It is never just one service provider.
One of the very common things you will see happen in countries like India is, rehabilitation services that families strive to provide for their loved ones often times include a spiritual component. And he was a believer in the help his parents were bringing to him from a spiritual perspective. And I think that is why working with him has left an indelible impression of my mind. How he was motivated to heal and was willing to stay involved. Often times it is so much dependent on the individual.
 
In about 10 days I think:
  • He progressed from not being able to hold the pen to being able to hold the pen.
  • From not remembering me to remembering every morning that I was his PT and that my name started with either P or B (even though he couldn’t yet write them down).
  • From needing full support to take a few independent steps to being able to stand up from a chair independently.
  • From tearing up every time I helped him hold a spoon to laughing out loud every time he dropped it down and I had to collect the glass beads back.
For someone like me who was trying very hard to heal from a terrible time in that college, working with him was the best thing to have happened to me then. I will never say he inspired me. I hate to apply that term to his situation or any other rehabilitation scenarios. His effort and the pain he battled everyday to make it through each session, they are indescribable. Nothing is inspiring when you see a person struggling every breath to take a step or to lift a small wooden block. For people who are really involved in their work as rehabilitation specialists, those are what I call the gut punch moments. The real moments when you are constantly reminded to not do a lousy job (because you had an annoying drive to work and for reasons like that) because someone’s ability to eat independently or self-care without dependence in future is solely relying on the chance that your care and training will be helpful to them.
 
Today I went through one of those evenings where you sit in open cold and you cry your heart out! You cry because that is the best thing you can do for yourself and that is only thing in your control. 15 minutes into the crying, face in my hands, palms wet with tears, I see his face when we last time said bye byes. I remember so well. He held my hands in both his hands and kept patting them while talking. He said to me, “You don’t know how much these few days will always mean for me in my life. You have the ability to be patient with people like me. You should continue to do the good work that you have learnt after all these years in college. Your problems will vanish someday. So choosing to leave the profession because of what people did to you because of politics is a wrong decision. And anytime you want to give up, remember my face and tell yourself that he will not appreciate it”
 
Why I wrote this today:
Social media was thrust upon our lives with no advance notice. It has now become a big part of our lives. For someone like me, I very carefully choose what I post on my social media (primarily because I don’t want to pain people with the challenges I have to face like everyone else). There have been several days like this in my #GradLife so far. When I have felt completely alone as the only Indian women ever to be here doing what I have done so far. So don’t ever assume that what I am trying to learn here has been easy so far. It is not as rosy as it looks on the social media. In extreme situations when possibilities for success look bleak, I remember his therapy days and ask myself.
Is it harder than the therapy days he persisted through for progress?
The obvious answer I hear my mind give me is NO.
 
The amount of kicking and screaming I have done to life every time I faced a challenge will blow everyone’s minds. Over the years the way I have been defining success and failure in my life have changed. The seeds for those thoughts though, were sowed during those therapy days when I worked with that young man from Rayalaseema.
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#bowlmeals #southindianfood #southindianvegan #veganfood #basmatirice @lifeeth 😈

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#indianvegan #carrotncoconut #southindiancuisine #veganfood

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From Archives #vegetarian #indiancooking #southindianfood #friedrice #veganfood #indianvegan

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#indiancooking #dentonite #southindiancuisine #southindianvegan #indianvegan

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#iftar #ramadaan2016 #veganfriedrice #southindiancuisine #indianvegan

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#indiancooking #indianvegetarian #indianvegan #gongura #koora #karvepaaku #curryleaf

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#veganfood #veganmeals #frozenmealsforone #indianreceipes #indiancooking #spinachleaves #gingerpower

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#homemade #vegan #southiefood

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#snowdayindfw #firsttimefrosting #supersuccess … Verdict awaited tomorrow 👍

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#veggie #meals #quesadilla #chilli #vegetarian #homecooked

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#vegatableloaf #sundaydinners #tvinspiredcooking , actually turned out good 😊

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Beerakaaya #ridgegourd #veggiecurry with #koorakaaram #spicepowder #southindian #food 🙂

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Olive oil based herb spread #multipurposecooking

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My Kitchen Experiments

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