Category Archives: life in Los Angeles


Anticucho black cod

Peruvian food has become extremely trendy and Picca offers a riot of flavors in what, I would imagine, is a personal and modern take on Peruvian food.  Ricardo Zacate, who first opened Mo-Chica (see review) in a funky part of town, has now graced the West side with Picca Cantina, which is garnering accolades and wonderful reviews.

Let’s start with the location, on that stretch of Pico Boulevard better known for kosher establishments – the stand alone building also hosts Sotto (check out the review), the excellent Italian eatery. Upstairs, however, is a modern cantina, with an open kitchen, sleek design and sleek customers to match, the latter handled with firmness and a smile by the capable hostess.

The noise level, once the restaurant is full, is beyond any reasonable conversation but my party and I were seated in a semi private room upstairs, around a sturdy and unusually large wooden table, and we were afforded an acceptable decibel level. Our server was professional, did not feel compelled to tell us her name and steered us through both the drinks and food menu with dexterity.

And what a menu it is. The  multitude of dishes are tapas size and meant to be enjoyed family style. To try the whole menu would require many reservations and a sizable savings account but the effort would be worth it.

My only other  experience with Peruvian food came courtesy of Mo-Chica (check out the review), possibly a more down to earth version of the food Mr. Zarate cooks at Picca, so I can’t say whether  what I ate resembles anything served anywhere in Peru. To accompany the various Pisco sour cocktails we ordered, we started by nibbling on Jalea Mixta, lightly fried seafood with a tartare sauce; Chicharrones de Pollo, fried morsels of chicken with salsa criolla and Papa Rellena, a Peruvian version of a jacket potato filled with slow cooked beef and a boiled egg. All three dishes were delicious, with the first two pleasing to less adventurous palates while the Papa Rellena will never make me look at another baked potato the same way. It was that good.

Egg, in the form of fried, made an appearance on another beef dish, a sort of stew, that was also excellent but the name of which I haven’t retained. If you do see it on the menu, do not hesitate though. The Ceviche Mixto also features thinly sliced potatoes in a citrus sauce and, if you are a fan of raw fish, the albacore tuna is a must. My personal favourite was served on a wooden board: Anticucho Black Cod with crisp sweet potatoes – a beautiful presentation and the buttery flavor of cod enhanced by a slightly sweet sauce. Seco de Paxo turned out to be duck leg comfit in a black beer sauce over cilantro rice. Despite my aversion for cilantro, at that point in the evening I was game to try anything and the duck was tender, flavorful  and highly unusual. As I said, bold flavors are the trademark of this restaurant.

Not sure if the Peruvian craze will continue or if Picca and Mo-Chica will keep on being the only game in town but if you are in for something different from the usual tapas, are in a festive mood and don’t mind a sign language conversation while munching on some pitch perfect and interesting food, make a bee-line for Picca and you won’t be disappointed.

Picca, by the way, means “nibble”.



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Petco last Sunday. Mother’s Day. The place is brimming with people and their dogs in tow – I am just trying to find a toy Ottie and Portia might find interesting. Not quite sure why I insist when old cardboard boxes seem to keep them occupied for hours on end. Maybe I am just tired of picking up cardboard bits as a wrap-up to an evening out. “Happy Mother’s day!” one of the cashiers thrills “We are all mothers, aren’t we, of our pets”. As a matter of fact, Ottie did cook me brunch, picked a bunch of roses and wrote me a card. The US is definitely going the way of old England when it comes to pets. Bonkers.  I just read that in San Francisco the dog population outnumbers children 180,000 to 108,000 (NY Times, 5/14).

Blue Plate on Montana in Santa Monica. Having lunch with a friend at this lively neighbourhood cafe where they promptly lose our order and the table next to us, who ordered after us, gets their food long before we do. But I am feeling in a charitable mood until our veggie wraps arrive. The moment we pick them up, they unravel like a spool of yarn, dripping vinaigrette and vegetables all over our hands and table. Kitchen, a wrap is meant to lovingly wrap what’s inside, keeping it tight until the last bite. Not terribly hard, not even for fashionable places in Santa Monica. If I wanted a tortilla with veggies on the side, that’s what I would have ordered.

The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Cancer research fund-raiser lunch with 300 people in attendance. You probably know of my visceral love for the Four Seasons. They don’t disappoint – the servers are impeccable around this mob of socialites, mostly women frozen in time by plastic surgery or frozen in place by their thinness. And did I mention highly pitched voices? The tomato 3 way appetizer is delicious. When I glance at the rest of the menu, I gasp at the sight of Chilean Sea Bass. 300 of them! Four Seasons Chef, don’t you get the Monterey Bay Aquarium list of sustainable fish? Don’t you know that Chilean Sea Bass has  been endangered for years and responsible restaurants don’t serve it? I had to go home and immediately write a letter. Mind you, I had forgotten how delicious it was…








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I was really looking forward to eating pizza at Sotto. Not that one would go just for the pizza – this restaurant’s menu is quite ballsy, with obscure Sardinian dishes even the most authentic Italians (like yours truly) might have a hard time recognizing. I like that, Italian restaurants that break the mold to explore all that Italian regional cuisine has to offer.

The reason why I was so looking forward to Sotto’s pizza is that a big deal was made of the wood fire oven imported from Naples, lovingly put together by Neapolitan artisans who know about the business of pizza ovens. Proper pizza cooks in under a minute in a 500F oven, slid in on a wooden board and retrieved bubbly and charred. It was a good omen.

Sotto is in a no-man’s stretch of Pico Boulevard, between Beverly and Beverwil, in a two storey building whose top is occupied by Picca, the Peruvian restaurant that has been gaining accolades of recent. Sotto means “under” or “underneath”, an apt name for the basement space that reminded me of some London flats where you would walk down from street level to enter (it was also the former home of “The Tasting Kitchen”). The long rectangular space is simple, elegant and rustic, with banquettes along the walls, wooden tables with no tablecloth and a large communal table in the center from which to see the action in the kitchen (and the famous oven.

The hostess promptly seated me even if the rest of the party hadn’t arrived yet, which gave me time to study the menu and the array of funky and inspiring cocktails.

What you simply must order is the house made bread: thick, crusty and cut into large slabs, it’s finished on the grill (or in the oven), giving it a slightly charred and wonderful taste. It’s served with either butter, olive oil or lard (which I was dying to order but for my arteries’s sake I passed on).

As an appetizer, the sardines did not disappoint. Interestingly rolled around fennel and pine nuts, they were flavourful, perfectly cooked and I could have kept on eating them as an entrée. The spicy clams with beans and ‘nduja sausage were also very good: fresh and barely steamed, they had a melt in your mouth quality and they perfectly married with the heavier broth which, to better mop it up, came armed with a thick slice of the above mentioned bread.

And then there was my Pizza Margherita. The good news is that the crust was charred the way the Neapolitan gods intended it to be; the sauce was good and not too plentiful and the fresh mozzarella as top-notch as I expected. Now, Neapolitan pizza, unlike the Roman one, is thicker at the edges and thin and soggy in the center. I can see how this version tries to replicate the original but the dough lacked the softness of the hundreds of pizzas I have had in Naples – it was just a bit too chewy. I still think Olio makes a better one.

Still, I would definitely go back. The two chefs behind Sotto have a very respectable background in Italian food: Zach Pollach worked, amongst many others, at my mother’s favourite restaurant, the 2 Michelin star Ambasciata near Ferrara. Steve Samson apprenticed, amongst others, at Valentino and other Piero Selvaggio’s establishments. They both clearly know their Italian food.

Next time I would like to try some of the Sardinian offerings or the Fusilli with Squid Ink which, I am told, are delicious. Coffee, served in the brown ceramic cups that are ubiquitous in many Italian coffee shops, was outstanding.


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Mr. and Mrs. Deer were leisurely parked outside my gate last night, when I got home. In fact, Mrs. Deer was looking positively radiant in her minimal make-up, batting her eye-lids, bearing just a hint of mascara. She was waiting for Mr. Deer, busy polishing his antlers with that special oil he is known to use, taking his sweet time despite dinner time approaching fast. Mrs. Deer did not want to miss her nightly reservation. Finally, Mr. Deer made his appearance, elegantly swooping in from the hillside, poised to reach out to Mrs. Deer, sprint towards my fence and make their way towards my rose bushes.

I slowed down, mesmerized by their beauty and their grace, knowing that the headlights would soon give my presence away and delay Mr. and Mrs. Deer’s dinner plans. And so it was.

My 8 year-long battle to keep the roses blooming through the Spring was lost a long time ago. My inept inner gardener loved to cut the multi-hued roses the previous owners had (stupidly) planted and cherished. Their plan to keep the wildlife at bay resorted to an electrified fence I promptly disconnected as soon as my (RIP) Rottweiler got mildly electrocuted. For a  short time, I tried web and neighbours’ inspired remedies as extravagant as sprinkling baking soda or laying small bowls of beer around the roots. Nothing worked. And that is how my exotic roses became the equivalent of a French Laundry meal for the resident deer.

A few days ago, I learnt of a couple who traded their Venice house for a pool accessorized abode in my neighbourhood. Six months into their “idyllic” residence, they spotted a rattlesnake in the backyard, where their toddler was playing – after calling pests’ removal companies and being told there was no way to abate rattlesnakes (no shit Sherlock – how would that work exactly?), they decided to move.

I am always amazed at the amount of city folks (and I was one the most urban of them all) who move to the canyons and expect to lead the same life as if they lived on the Santa Monica Promenade (“oh, I have to drive such a distance to get food – nobody will deliver”). At least, I did my research beforehand and made peace with the snakes, the deer, the coyotes, the tarantulas and the mountain lions whose habitat I trespass on (not to mention the landslides and the wildfires – as if earthquakes were not enough).

The gift I get in return is Mr. and Mrs. Deer welcoming me home at night, clearly unafraid of me – by now, they know I am running a rose special outside my garage.


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A few weeks ago, while trying to find a date that would suit a number of people for a get together at my house (apparently, a monster endeavour), one couple suggested February 26. “February 26??” I chuckled. That’s so East Coast. No one who has been living in Los Angeles for a reasonable amount of time, would ever dream of picking Oscar night for anything social, other than issuing an Oscar party invitation.

Los Angeles is often thought of, especially by East Coasters, as a city of illusions but the reality is more complex and nuanced than that. For the melting pot New York is supposed to be, there is a sense of homogeneity that is altogether lacking in LA, and which adds to a depth that can be missing in New York.

Nonetheless, whether our lives here are tangentially touched by the entertainment industry, or not at all, film culture is part of our everyday life, as testified by the preparations leading to Oscar week-end, starting with the closure of Hollywood Boulevard for a week prior, causing annoyance and even more traffic, or the new saga of the former Kodak Theatre in search of a new name (and a new sponsor) now that Kodak is bankrupt or the LA Times investigation into who makes up the notoriously secret voting Academy (it turns out it’s a bunch of white, old fogeys. How surprising).

At 9:30 on Saturday morning, on Rodeo Drive, a man of gargantuan proportions, in shorts and high tops, clutching a video camera, is shooting still shuttered shop windows and oversized vases of Bougainvillea. His wife, only a touch smaller, “simply loves these flower arrangements!”. They both perk up at my walking up the stairs, with a purposeful step and dark glasses, as if I belonged. They stare for an uncomfortable moment, trying to decide if I am noteworthy, but, in reality, my dark glasses are there to conceal the hazy fumes of last night’s partying, and my hurried step is an effort to get to my hair appointment on time. I am loathed to tell these out of towners that their chances at spotting a celebrity on Rodeo drive on a Saturday morning are zero to nil. But isn’t it the fun of visiting Los Angeles? The possible frisson of seeing George Clooney walk by and tell their friends in Tennessee?

As soon as I sit in the colorist’s chair, Heide’s first question is if I am going to any parties tomorrow, the unspoken subtext being “Oscar party”. Not quite, but I have friends coming over, a vegetarian dinner in mind and the usual ritual of criticizing clothes and hairdos a la Joan River, while filling those boring commercials with mindless chitchat. It’s enormous fun without the pressure of having to look good.

Oscar night landed on my calendar as soon as it was announced, that is the Angeleno I have become. If you can’t fight them, embrace them.  I love LA for a million things that have nothing to do with the movie culture – I love it for being at the forefront of many a trend, for the in your face nature, for its experimental art scene, for its beaches and its food and the clashing yet co-habiting cultures. I love it for its light and its lightness, for its survival and pioneering spirit, for being a bastion of liberalism and for letting people be. And yes, I also love it for being the epicenter of where dreams are created and I am happy to celebrate, for one night, those dream makers who, at times, take themselves a bit too seriously, but, on the best days, still create magic.






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I never thought I would see the day when Californians ease into a conversation talking about the weather, like true Londoners. It is said that California lacks seasons, that it is invariably a balmy 70 degrees, a bit colder in winter and a bit hotter in summer. There can be bitter cold mornings and sweltering mid-summer days but, by and large, that statement would ring true to most of us. But never have we seen temperatures in the 80’s in January, veritable bikini days that are stretching indefinitely. Normally, we would be seeing pouring rains at this time of the year.

This further proof that global warming isn’t a theory concocted by misled scientists has nonetheless provided Los Angelenos with some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets, with nary a hint of the usual fog lingering over the ocean.

Dawn starting to creep up

At 6:30 it’s still dark. Ottie, Portia and I steal out of the house and embark on our morning walk. Once we reach the top of the hill we are climbing, orange is breaking in the East. The lone rooster of the neighbourhood rings its alarm bell from inside its coop and birds awaken softly. The deer we always spot having dinner in the afternoon are still asleep. Faster than I think possible, the orange light grows so intense you could be forgiven if you thought a massive fire had engulfed the city.

Getting there

By the time we are ready to head back, the sun has comfortably taken up residence in the Orient and the birds are chirping with more conviction. And the three of us are craving breakfast. I have come to treasure this time spent walking in solitude, watching the world come alive, once again. And these recent sunrises have made the experience even more amazing.

Ready for breakfast now

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If you have a cherished pair of shoes you have owned for a long time and are unable to part with, heels re-done three times, permanent scuff marks and the like, I have the place for you. I call this hole in the wall “The Thief”, unfairly, because the man who owns and operates this thriving business is very courteous and professional and, above all, a genius at restoring shoes, handbags and anything made of leather.

Located in the heart of Malibu, it’s where I go whenever a pair of expensive shoes has seen its day but I just can’t give it up as, unlike Sarah Jessica Parker, I don’t have that many. The money it will cost me could buy me a reasonably priced pair of average shoes (hence my unfair nickname) but I will get back my original shoes as if I had just purchased them, right out of the store.

I don’t visit him more than once year, yet he never fails to recognize me, or pretends to, despite being surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of leather goods in need of repair, owned by much more moneyed feet than mine. The not-so-secret is out, judging from the amount of work this tiny shop performs. Dropping off or picking up your soles requires patience because, invariably, there is a line, dotted with people with all sorts of requests.

Older blond lady wearing high-heeled booties and plumped lips: “Can you stretch my boots right now if I take them off? They are a bit tight” “Yes, I can but you need to leave them here 24 hours”. The concept seems foreign to her.

Round girl in riding attire holding a humongous pair of riding boots: “Can you cut the top off and still maintain the curving effect?” The question seemed odd to me until I noticed how short her legs were “Yes, I can but once I cut them you have to come in for a fitting – I need to measure your legs”. A dubious expression lingers on the girl’s face.

A trio of well-heeled characters, huddled over a pair of pumps “Can you dye them midnight blue?” “Well, can you show me the exact shade of blue you want?”

There is nothing this man can’t do if it is shoe related. And I acquired all this knowledge by recently standing in line behind a young guy who, when I approached, simply said to me: “Welcome to the third circle of hell!”. As the store is conveniently located close to Grom, my favourite gelato parlour, I was already armed with a pear and bacio cone to make my long wait sweeter.

Slowly inching along, it turns out that  the young guy in front of me is the assistant to an old-time female rocker. There is a bit of discussion about whether the shoes he needs to pick up are under her name or her husband’s and some frantic typing in the computer on the part of the owner’s wife, until the owner emerges from the back and proclaims he knows exactly where the shoes are. I don’t know how he does it, in the piles and piles of  shoes and boots in different state of disarray, cascading from every angle. But he re-emerges with a pair of impeccable black leather brogues, so well polished they could be the handiwork of an English butler and, next to it, a pair of platforms that could have been retrieved from Elton John’s closet. For a moment, I am left imagining this couple, he in a tailored suit and the laced up brogues and she, heavy make up, jet black hair coiffed high, towering on her stage shoes.

That image and the ice-cream made the wait worthwhile. Not to mention the pristine shoes I had left for dead a week before, now restored to their former perfection.

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Portia finally graduated to a short hike, the one I take when I am in a hurry but I still want the dogs to have a romp in the park, off-leash. It’s a generous sunny day, if a bit chilly, and this corner of my canyon, unknown to most but the residents, miles away from popular Runyon Canyon, is even emptier than usual.

On Sundays, one can always count on bumping into fellow law breaking dog owners, who oblige by picking up smelly waste, using degradable poop bags generously provided by the State Parks Dept with money California doesn’t have, but who otherwise merrily ignore the well posted sign stating “All dogs must be on leash”. Fat chance.

A stray dog welcomes us as we step on the main trail – he is sweet, has a craggy  face and a thin body and no collar and I worry he is lost. He doesn’t follow us, though, and I promise myself that, if he is still there when we leave, we will take him to a shelter. On second thought, if he is really loose, his survival chances are better on the streets than in a shelter who will kill him within 6 weeks if not adopted. Moot point anyway because, 40 minutes later, there is no trace of the dog, and I’d like to think he returned home.

At the fork, we veer left, instead of the usual right. Our regular hike is much longer and more strenuous and I don’t feel confident Portia’s legs can take it. While ascending, a bare footed, red-bearded young man, descending, wishes us a happy Sunday. You can always count on Californians being friendly.

The wide trail ends in a flat, large expanse overlooking the ocean and the bay. If one ignores the reddish ribbon of smog hanging over the city, the view is otherwise pristine, clear all the way to Catalina. What is harder to ignore is the very naked man standing on the edge of the lawn, hands in prayer, his thin butt facing my approaching way. Ottie and Portia run to him, and, cringing at the thought of their muzzles in his crotch, I avert my eyes, long enough for the man to reach for a pair of shorts. I am wearing a thick sweater and he seems happy in shorts and nothing else.

As I walk by he wishes me a good Sunday. The dogs, in the meantime, have decided to adopt him and do not respond to my whistling and calling. Maybe the Messiah has alighted on my corner of the Canyon. In reality, a few years ago, some faceless souls built a maze at the top of this hill, crudely modelled on Chartres Cathderal’s. It is always immaculately kept, delineated by rocks of all colours and shapes. It has been adorned with white tiles here and there, pebbles spell out words such as “forgive”, “peace” and other well-meaning intentions. Torrential rains or powerful winds never disrupt the maze, as if some angel glided over on occasion, pulled weeds and restored order. Recently, small offerings have started to appear in the center: shells, bracelets, pins and, today, even a card.  I can’t resist walking it, every time I go, and I am always surprised by the meditative quality of the act. It looks like those monks were on to something.

The popularity of the maze must have spread in recent times as, entering the park a few months back, a girl got out of her car and asked me if I knew where she could find the maze. Which also explains the presence of the bare footed man, the naked one and the banjo strumming boy, swaddled in a Hawaiian skirt, we happen upon on the way back. He also bid us a good Sunday.

It would be a cheap shot to make fun of these Californian “kooks”, who most definitely would not be found strolling around Manhattan. They were polite, they were welcoming and kind to my dogs. I have no experience of communing with trees, as one appeared to be doing, standing under a massive oak, facing the trunk and praying to it. But who am I to judge?  That this city can encompass new fangled hippies, hipsters, celebrities, and the whole gamut of regular folks in between is an ever ending testament to the “Go West” dream. Here, you can be whomever you choose to be, in the certainty no one will judge you for it.

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Autumn Sunset

Walking the dogs at the waning of a Sunday afternoon. This time next week, it will be dark and, if not wintry in weather, certainly wintry in mood. There is something that makes me feel at peace with the world in observing the passing of time through the ritual of the seasons, as if everything is as it should be.

While Ottie and Portia run down a dirt road, I am enjoying the balmy air, the cotton wool clouds high in the sky and the serendipity of a deer crossing our path.

Then, all of a sudden, the air stands still, nature goes quiet, in that window of time when the birds stop chirping and the cicadas haven’t intoned their song yet: the clouds start reflecting tinges of pink and orange and the sky deepens its blue.

A gust of cold air rushes over my bare shoulders, making me turn towards the way home. The light deepens, the pinks and oranges now so intense, as if in a final burst before relinquishing to darkness.

There are fewer things more beautiful than a Californian sunsets. On this particular Sunday afternoon, I can’t think of any.



A few minutes later



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There was a time when the couch was off limit

There is a charming English TV series titled “All Creatures Great and Small”, about a country vet and his life spent among sick dogs, injured horses and cows’ difficult deliveries. The series was inspired by a string of books by the same name, chronicling the life of a real veterinary doctor. In lieu of payment, the good vet would sometimes accept butchered meat or eggs and other farm products but the animals were never left in distress.

I fear such vets have all but disappeared. They might care for animals but they care for their bank accounts a lot more, often preying on fearful pet owners who would go to great lengths, even financial ones, to relieve their animals’ maladies. It’s no mystery the pet industry is a multi-billion enterprise, sometimes catering to our absurd needs of humanizing animals who should not be dressed in couture sweaters or carried around in Louis Vuitton bags.

Like healthcare for humans, healthcare for pets has become an ominous maze, rendered even more difficult by pet owners’ ignorance of what might ail their companions.

Last week, I woke up to Portia unable to get off the couch. Literally, she couldn’t walk for the first 30 minutes, then proceeded to limp miserably, with going up and down the stairs an impossibility. Despite my better judgement, after two days of this and her sad stare begging to know what was going on and a funny cough to top it off, I whisked her to the emergency clinic on a Sunday morning. The doctor could very well tell, as could I, that nothing was broken but, instead of examining her by touch and sending me off with pain medication, prescribed x-rays for her leg and her lungs which, surprise surprise, turned up negative on both counts and set me back over $400. He prescribed some anti-inflammatory pills and rest for a week. Needless to say, three days later Portia was running again and her cough, after sleeping a couple of nights with a humidifier, was gone.  I was an idiot, taken in by my dog’s inability to eloquently express her symptoms and my tendency to worry, on which the good doctor preyed upon.

Worse still, my friend L’s cat was attacked by (possibly) a raccoon and turned up one night with a gash in his stomach and some of his intestines spilling out. A trip to the emergency room and $500 of x-rays and examinations made the doctor reach the conclusion that a $3,000 surgery was necessary to repair the damage. A quick call to the company with whom the cat was insured determined the policy would pony up only $400 (pet insurance – possibly another scam), leaving my friend torn between paying a sum that these days people are hard pressed to afford or euthanize a two year old cat.

Really, $3,000? I am not disputing a veterinary surgeon’s skills but, at this point very familiar with how veterinary bills are inflated, I am starting to question the reality of these costs.And if someone clearly can’t afford such fees, why is the only alternative a shot to the Creator? Why not offer discounted fees, a payment plan instead? As pet owners, when we adopt an animal, we are fully aware of what the costs will be and that, oftentimes, sacrifices will be asked of us, but I am beginning to think we are being taken advantage of.

There is no friendly vet to turn to anymore, certainly not in a city like LA, not even in the semi-rural community I live in (where the local vet nearly killed Ottie many years ago  and then lied to me about it). When I told my mother about my friend’s plight, her puzzled comment was “Why doesn’t she take her cat to a university facility?”. Well, we don’t seem to have this option. In Italy, most University Veterinary Faculties have clinics where we can take our animals and get them treated at no cost. A surgeon will teach a student how to sew up a cat or do a particularly difficult surgery and everybody wins: a student gets to learn, a pet is saved and an owner is not bankrupted.

I go to great length to get the best care for me and this effort has involved research and the time to establish a wonderful relationship with my primary care doctor of 16 years who has always helped me navigate the maze of prevention and sickness. I have now started doing the same for my dogs by learning more about their potential problems and solutions. Still, when those pleading eyes tell me something is wrong, I can’t help panic and fork out $400 for unnecessary tests. When will I learn?





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