Day 123: Alba back.

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Today we were coming home. After seventeen and a half weeks, 123 days wandering around eastern and southern Europe, we’d be flying back to Bonnie Scotland to spend a fortnight in the company of assorted family and friends, celebrating Christmas and the New Year, not to mention Karen’s birthday, Eve’s birthday and my Greg’s birthday. We were beside ourselves with anticipation, unsure of how we would react to returning to “normal” life or to society as exhibited by the inhabitants of Dundee, Scotland.

It’s just that we’ve seen so much. Things that surprised us, things that intrigued us, things that puzzled us. They do things differently on the continent. That is not a judgemental comment but a statement of fact. What we would consider ridiculous, they consider perfectly normal. What they consider extreme we consider everyday. We are different but variety is indeed the spice of life so let’s have a lot more of it. An open mind goes a long way!

The arrangements for getting back to Scotland went without a hitch. We took the Audi to the long-stay car park behind Terminal 2 at Malpensa Airport, Milan where we’d booked it in for the next fortnight, got a shuttle from there to the terminal, checked in our one suitcase, waltzed through security and had breakfast in the departures lounge. The weather was excellent so we knew there wouldn’t be any delays this morning.

We took off at 12.50 CET and two hours and fifteen minutes later we touched down in a rather wet but welcoming Edinburgh. Communication with Gavin led to us meeting him shortly afterwards and we were on our way back to Dundee. Our first stop was Mary’s Mum’s house to let her know we were safe and sound then, after a warming bowl of Dorothy’s delicious mud soup and a cup of tea, Gavin whisked us up to Arbroath where our daughter-in-law Eve was waiting to greet us with a glass of champers.

Eve pulled out all the stops to make us feel at home, preparing a truly delicious meal for the four of us before we retired to the lounge to talk over what had been happening in our absence. We caught up on family events and discussed the merits and demerits of living in Italy as Gavin had done for a year 10 years ago and before we knew it, it was time for bed, especially as our hosts had been up from the early hours.

I find myself slightly unsure as to how to bring this last post before the Xmas recess to a close. We always planned to be back at this time and now we are here we are glad of that decision. But a bit of us wonders if we ought not to have stayed away for the whole 9 months as going away again after the New Year will be that little bit more difficult. Nonetheless we have come back and hope to get invites to come and see you all over the festive period. That would be really nice.

After a short trip through Holland and Belgium we have done some serious visiting in Germany and Italy, coupled with a brief flirtation with Switzerland and Austria. Each country individually has its pluses and minuses and it is almost unfair to compare them to each other. None of them had anything that suggested they didn’t want foreign visitors.

As for caravanning round Europe, well, it has truly been amazing. The Magic Caravan has performed beyond our expectations in terms of habitability and all of the campsites have been reasonable although some were obviously better-run than others. What has surprised us most has been the lack of caravans on tour, in comparison to the spectacular number of motor-homes coming to the sites. Caravans have accounted for less than 5% of the vehicles we have seen and it seems that nowadays everyone owns or has hired a big, fancy motor-home to come and tour around in. What I simply hadn’t anticipated was the low number of campsites open over the winter and the scarcity of people using those which were open. Being totally alone on a site miles from “civilisation” has not been an experience we wish to repeat too often and, although we have had no problems of any kind on site nor come to harm in any way at all, we still have felt a little isolated in a forest, up a track, up a hill in pitch dark and absolute stillness.

Let me finish this first half of our adventure by paying tribute to my wife Mary who has shown total confidence in my judgement and decision-making, and has surprised me on a daily basis with her get-up-and-go attitude to the things I have asked her to do over the past 4 months. She is a brave young woman with a real appetite for adventure and the unexpected, and if you had seen her with me on those high, scary terraces up the mountains above the Cinque Terre just a few days ago you would understand why I hold her in such high esteem. Mary I salute you!

This is the last blog post now until 04/01/13 when we fly back to Milan, but remember that Socrates 6 will be posted late on Christmas Eve as a wee present to all the kids (although I know the adults will be just as keen to find out what our favourite snail has been up to!)

Merry Christmas everyone, and a happy, successful 2013. XXX George & Mary

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Day 122: Castellanza

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And so the day arrived. Today we were headed back onto the motorway up to Genoa to put the Magic Caravan into storage, then a drive north to Milan Malpensa to our airport hotel for our flight home. But what a rude awakening! It just happened to be the coldest morning we’ve experienced on the whole adventure and when Mary minced off to the loo she came back reporting everything thick with frost. Still, we had a journey or two to make so we cracked on, had breakfast, tidied up and did a last check of what was to be left in the caravan, taken in the car and packed for Scotland.

By the time we were hitched up and ready to leave, the sun had defrosted the car nicely so no scraping was required. The Audi kicked into action, crossed the Stream of Death, pulled the Magic Caravan back up the mountain and we were quickly on our way up the autostrada to Genoa.

The Stream of Death!

The Stream of Death!

My nerves were a bit on edge as this was the crucial moment of the adventure so far. We absolutely had to leave the caravan behind us in order to fly home so it was vital that the arrangements I had made with a storage depot somewhere in Genoa would work without a problem.

No time for dramatic pause today: everything worked really well. Victoria found us the depot 3 minutes from the motorway, the guy was at the gate to meet us even though we were 20 minutes late (Traffico intenso uscita Genova ovest) and he helped us roll the Magic Caravan under a lovely awning with a solid roof to keep off the snow and protect it from the cold. Perfect! I paid him the 70 Euro we had agreed for the 3 weeks care and off we sped back to the motorway toll barrier and north towards Milan.

Surprisingly we didn’t head straight to our hotel but took a detour to the town of Castellanza where Gavin did a year’s study 10 years ago. This was not a big deal as it is only a quarter of an hour from Malpensa airport and our hotel. We parked up at a place I recognized from the 3 day visit young George and I had made to see him back then, walked down past his old residence and around the corner to our destination, “Uptown” bar and café where he had spent most of his year and taken us every night we were there. It was still called “Uptown” but had changed quite a bit, having been modernised and a piece added for the smokers. Anyway, I took loads of photos for Gavin but here’s one for you.

The Fountain of Death!

The Fountain of Death!

After lunch at “Uptown” we drove down the road to our hotel which was only about 10 minutes away. Victoria was magnificent with her instructions except as usual for the last 50 metres, but my right-hand woman and erstwhile navigator (for the last 50 metres!) kept her beady eyes alert and spotted the hotel sign, directing me safely to our resting place for tonight.

We settled in and had 40 winks, Mary had a bath (the first since Sorrento!) then we drove just down the road to a McDonald’s where we had a great, relaxed meal and a wee blether about some of the highs and lows of the first half of the adventure. TV in the room was short and sweet and we were soon both in the land of nod.

Best weird moment of today. While we were travelling at 60 mph through one of the many long tunnels which take you through the mountains south of Genoa we were overtaken…….. by a hearse! And it had a passenger!

Day 121: Laundry

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We had our first long-lie in a while this morning, not venturing out of the bed until we were sure the sun had heated up the place nicely. Remember that with such cloudless skies lately, although it is brilliant during the daytime, it gets quite chilly at night, dropping down towards zero. We had no intention of leaving the site today as this was our last full day of camping before Xmas and we had some serious arranging and organizing to do.

After breakfast I set to work washing the car and bits of the Magic Caravan while Lady Burton rolled up her chiffon sleeves and headed for the washing facilities. Once the wash had started she was then informed that the driers weren’t working so asked me to set up a washing line. Fortunately we have a real nylon washing line and there was a row of small trees right behind the caravan so I quickly rigged up a line running between 5 trees and affording us plenty space to hang our wet laundry in the sun. Two hours later the clothes were drying a treat when geography stepped in to deny us success. As we hadn’t been on site around one in the afternoon due to the visits we had been making, we didn’t know that the blazing sun stopped blazing just after 13.15 when it slipped daintily behind the wooded hill which lies south of the campsite.

This now became quite an issue. A ton of very damp laundry to get dry but we are travelling tomorrow and staying in an airport hotel. Google came to the rescue with the address of a launderette in the next village, so we piled the clothes into big bags, threw them in the boot and drove back through the single lane tunnels to find it. And find it we did, thanks to a wee local woman who gave us excellent directions and wished us a Merry Christmas. When we got to the launderette, you guessed it, it was closed, but not only for siesta, no, it was closed every Wednesday afternoon.

So, what now? Well, I remembered Google had also thrown up some launderettes in other nearby towns and, although we had no exact addresses, we reckoned it was worth a shot so (are you following this? All this just to dry our clothes!) we drove to Sestri Levante, a bigger town further up the coast. We parked near the centre, asked a local for directions to the nearest launderette – he actually knew where it was! – asked another wee Italian Mama for more accurate directions and ended up in a self-service launderette with a dozen machines to choose from. How good was that?

On the way back from a successful drying of our clothes I popped into a grocer’s to get bread and came out with a roast chicken which we had for tea while watching celebrity Pointless on the Beeb. The rest of the evening was spent packing cases and deciding what to leave in the caravan, what to bring home and what to leave in the car for Turkey (the country, not the bird). We went to bed happy that all bases were covered.

Did I say ALL bases? Let’s wait and see.

Day 120: Cinque Terre

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Unbelievably we made the 10.01 train this morning. It was not without last minute drama however, although entirely the fault of Trenitalia and not us (for once!). We had just reached platform 2 from which yesterday’s train had disdainfully pulled away, leaving us agog, when there was an announcement about a train shortly to arrive. An old lady then asked me something with “La Spezia” in it, so I put my thumbs up and nodded as if to communicate that she was on the correct platform.

She responded with an energetic shake of the head and shouted “Binario cambiato”, setting my brain into translator mode as she continued to gesticulate frantically. That’s when the penny dropped. The train was coming in on Platform 1 and not Platform 2 where we were standing, and it was coming in now! We dashed downstairs, under the rails and back up again, but incredibly couldn’t see the access to Platform 1……. And the train had come to a halt! We ran outside before finding an open gate which we sprinted through and ran to the train. This time the doors were still open and, breathless, we climbed onboard. The train then sat in the station for 5 more minutes!

We travelled down to the furthest away of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore. Then disaster struck. At the station there were notices informing visitors that the entire length of the famous blue trail, including the Via del Amore, was closed to hikers for safety reasons after an accident a couple of months ago when some Aussies were hurt. That scuppered our plan for the day. The trip was saved however by the girl in the Tourist Information Office who told us that, although the low level blue trail was closed, the high level red trails were still ok.

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

The star during a break in filming!

The star during a break in filming!

To get started, we had to take the train back to Manarola (village number 2) then walk up through the town before engaging a flight of carved steps leading up the hill. This ascent then turned into a serious bit of hill-climbing as it rose through terrace after terrace of olive groves, eventually taking us to a height of almost 450 metres before the path levelled off and then swung north following the edge of the hillside.

The brochure we had read the night before was a very bad English translation which suggested “your toil will be rewarded at the top, where the beautiful waters down below will invite you to take a bath!” We didn’t have a bath it is true, but our toil was rewarded in spades with some of the most stunning views we have ever seen. The path took us on a ridiculous but exhilarating journey along high terraces above the Mediterranean before we dropped sharply back down two and a half hours later into the village of Corniglia. Let me tell you, the Italians definitely don’t do Health & Safety, but today we were delighted they don’t, as there is no way we or anyone would have been allowed access to such a heart-stopping trail!

Rather high, aren't we?

Rather high, aren’t we?

The path through the terraces

The path through the terraces

Once at the station we took the next train to the fifth village, Monterosso, where we passed the final hour of sunlight strolling by the sea with dozens of locals. A hot chocolate in the station café rounded off an absolutely fantastic day’s walking. Both Mary and I agreed that today was another of those completely lost for words days which went way beyond our expectations and left us rubbing our eyes in disbelief. Yet again it didn’t turn out as planned but, if anything, was even better than we could have reasonably hoped. The weather was quite splendid once again and it reached 16 degrees in the mid-afternoon while I only put my coat on after the sun had set at 17.00. What a day!

A well-deserved cuppa!

A well-deserved cuppa!

I’m attaching a couple of photos but they can do no justice to the panoramas our eyes feasted on during our high walk. Hopefully we’ll be able to describe them to you in more detail when we next see you all.

A bridge over the Med. or a shadow of our former selves.

A bridge over the Med. or a shadow of our former selves.

Well, that’s the last of the tourist stuff until after Xmas. Tomorrow we prepare ourselves for our journey to Genoa where we leave the Magic Caravan, then our drive to our hotel at Milan Malpensa, then finally our flight back to Scotland on Friday. Friday’s post will be the last for a fortnight but I have good news for my readers. Having posted Socrates 5 tonight, I will post Socrates 6 late on Xmas Eve so you can unwrap another part of his adventures on Xmas morning. Enjoy the gift.

Day 119: Portofino

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We were relatively well-organized in a disorganized kind of a way this morning. Getting up and having breakfast proved not impossible, if a little random, and preparing for a day’s walking only took about three times as long as it should have. Nonetheless we were in the car and on our way to Deiva Marina on time to catch the 12.01 train to the Cinque Terre. We had not however reckoned with the enormity of the task defined as “Finding a parking space.”

We parked at the station and Mary got out to read the rules which told us the spot we were in was for “autorrizati” only. A local pointed me to a car park about 200 metres away and off I drove, leaving Lady Burton to find the right platform. I drove to the car park, found a place, locked up and set off back to the station. A strange urgency then overcame me and I broke into a trot (which is much better than breaking into a house!). That trot became a jog and, as I saw the train arrive, the jog became a sprint. Sod’s Law says that if you are in a hurry then something stupid like not being able to find the main entrance to a railway station will delay you. I couldn’t and, fatally, it did. The third identical door I tried was the correct one although the man working just inside it had put me off the first time I’d tried it. I thought I was in his workshop!

The train was there still waiting. On the opposite platform! Despite jelly legs I dashed downstairs, underneath the track and back up the other side where Mary was waiting. She told me to hurry. What!? Could she not see the veins sticking out on my neck? She reached up to open the carriage door but it wouldn’t open. Someone on the inside tried to open it but they were unsuccessful too. Then the train gently pulled away. Without us. I was too out of breath to swear at it. While Mary was giving me the kiss of life (at least that was her excuse!) we decided not to go to Cinque Terre after all so returned to the car and drove off in the opposite direction towards the gem of the Italian Riviera, Portofino.

Did you know that this wee town has been THE place for the rich and famous to holiday for the past 50 or so years? We didn’t. We just chose it as the next obvious place to go and see on this coastline. A mile up the road we came to a tunnel with a red stop light showing so parked behind the car that was already waiting. We got out to admire the view while more cars and vans parked behind us. After about 10 minutes we returned to the car and not long afterwards the light changed to green and our convoy moved off into the tunnel. We quickly saw that we were in a one-lane tunnel and that the traffic alternated every 15 minutes or so. Three tunnels were entered and exited before there was a general return to two-lane carriageway although both lanes were quite tight and the Audi breathed in as it passed a local bus.

Me, checking out the first tunnel.

Me, checking out the first tunnel.

This is NOT a postcard. Mary snapped this.

This is NOT a postcard. Mary snapped this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To cut a long story a teensy bit shorter, we drove to Portofino hugging the Mediterranean coastline, sometimes feet from the waves, sometimes hundreds of feet above them. Add the excellent sunny weather to the picture and you have an almost idyllic road trip along a strip of incomparable beauty easily rivalling the wonder of the Amalfi coast road. Portofino itself was quite beautiful and we enjoyed an hour and a half of excellent walking around the harbour and up the hill where we discovered what my Mum’s late sister, Katie Brown, had really done with that pools win I mention in my book. I did not enjoy the parking at all and felt we had been told to “Stand and Deliver” when our ninety minutes cost us 11 Euro!! Ouch! The two coffees and hot ham and cheese panino we bought at the café only cost ten! Only when we got home did we discover Portofino is unusually expensive because it’s always full of millionaires.

Now we know! God bless Katie!

Now we know! God bless Katie!

Just like the Arbroath cliffs.

Just like the Arbroath cliffs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stopped at one of the other towns on the way home and had a nice stroll along the boardwalk as the sun began to set but we then headed back as I didn’t fancy driving that incredible road in the dark. Safely back on site, we had tea then spent a couple of hours sorting out our belongings for storage in the caravan, locking in the car or for bringing back to Scotland. A quick Skype call to Uncle Gerard and it was off to bed where I am writing this.

Tomorrow we will walk the Cinque Terre. Don’t hold your breath!

Portofino is the lumpy bit centre background..

Portofino is the lumpy bit centre background..

Don't you think Mary needs a haircut?

Don’t you think Mary needs a haircut?

Day 118: Deiva Marina

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Today we had to leave the curvy hills of Tuscany behind as we moved north to our final campsite in Italy before we return home on Friday. That meant a relatively early start as we’d promised to be ready to leave by eleven so that the big gate just above us would be open. I’d asked the wee man on duty yesterday to open it for us as the alternative route out of the campsite was tortuous enough for the Audi never mind with the Magic Caravan in tow.

It became quite busy. Mary was rushing around collecting all the clothes we’d had to leave on the radiators in the toilets and showers overnight after discovering that the tumble dryer was very efficient on tumble but not so brilliant on dryer. One advantage of being the only caravan on the site was that we could use all of the radiators in the toilets and showers, meaning most of our laundry (which Mary hand-washed after 2 separate attempts to get the washing machine to work) was in fact quite dry if a little scrunched up and brittle.

Meanwhile I was off in the car to the village to get bread, milk and some other small provisions. Would you believe it, what do I find but a 3 Store which would open at ten o’clock. Back I went after a quick breakfast and bought ten Euro of Internet time to keep us going over the next few days. When I got back, Mary had pretty well finished all the hook-up tasks leaving us to attach the caravan to the car, check everything was secure and drive off.

The Fi-Pi-Li took us back to Pisa where we picked up the A12 Autostrada towards Genova and off we went. There was however a dark feeling in the back of my mind, a kind of presentiment of something going wrong. I put it down to the usual anxiety we both experience when moving to a new site. Will it be open? Will it have clean toilets? Will anyone else be there? Will it be conveniently situated near the top of the inaccessible pinnacle, down a 20% gradient on a non-tarmac path exactly the width of the caravan?

The bad feeling stayed with me however and actually increased after a motorway sign reminded me that we should have a set of snow chains in the car to stay legal. Between 15 November and 15 April it is a requirement by law to either have special winter tyres fitted or to carry a set of snow-chains ready to put on if you are caught in a blizzard somewhere on their difficult and high roads. I pulled into a Shell service station, topped up with diesel, paid in cash then went inside and enquired about “Catene” – chains. The assistant helped me find the numbers on the side of my tyres which gave him the correct size then found me the heavy plastic case of chains I required. I left happier but 60 Euro lighter. As I left the shop I bumped into a policeman whose patrol car was parked 10 meters from the caravan. I excused myself and walked back to the car where I kissed……. the case!

The A12 climbed and climbed into the Ligurian mountains until we reached our exit from where it was twisty and steep downhill for a few kilometres into Valdeiva. We found the campsite, rejected it as not the one we were looking for, travelled on but then checked on the laptop and decided it was indeed the correct place, so returned and took a steep path down and across a river!! There was no bridge by the way, just a strip of concrete with the water still flowing over it! Too late to worry, we were in and over before you could say “A sailor’s life for me!” and 100 metres further on, there was a young woman from the campsite waiting to greet us.

We set up and quickly concluded this place was fine as it was clean, bright and there were plenty other people around. The Internet is free and very quick, the satellite dish played a blinder and found us Astra 28 so the evening was spent watching “BBC Sports Personality of the Year” (Well done Bradley, but I would have given it to Andy Murray) and we managed to Skype my brother Joe and his wife Morag, George & Ben and later Gavin. Mary spoke to Bruce and Virginie as well which was nice.

The weather forecast over the next few days is pretty good and we intend to try to walk the 5 villages of the Cinque Terre either tomorrow or Tuesday as we’ll need Wednesday for packing. Heavens it’s such a busy time we’re having travelling around all these places. Did you know where Liguria was? We didn’t! Did you know that Italy is nearly all mountains with narrow strips of land on either side of a dauntingly high spine? We didn’t! Did you know how cold Italy is in winter? We didn’t! I could go on for ages on this theme but you’ll be glad to know, I won’t.

My feelings of impending doom were groundless. Unless I open the portal of the Magic Caravan tomorrow morning and find we’re in the playground at Monifieth High School!! Mary’s dreamt that, you know.

Day 117: Cats and Dogs

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Italian dogs bark non-stop. Wherever we have been in Italy the air has been constantly filled with the distant repetitive barking of some dog or other: even as I type this post there is a mutt giving itself a serious sore throat just over the hill and no more than 500 metres away. When we go for a walk there is hardly a house we can walk by without an attack hound racing up to the thankfully sturdy gate and slobbering white foam in our direction. As you can imagine, this kind of surprise can be rather disconcerting and can act as a free laxative on occasions when the approach is not preceded by the bark.

Now I am no expert on dogs of any country. Back home I can tell an Alsatian from a Scottie dog but that is about it as far as my canine craft stretches. So I don’t really understand their barking. That’s English barking I mean. What chance therefore do I have of quickly interpreting the voiced demands of an Italian dog when I can barely understand its human masters? The dogs do understand Italian by the way because I’ve seen them react correctly when their Italian owner shouts something like “Sit” or “Kill” (in Italian of course). Having said that, I do understand why a dog barks when it’s angry or even when it’s a bit over-excited. That’s normal and we hear humans make similar sounds in similar situations. But why do the dogs over here just……. bark? They can’t be angry all day long, can they? Nor could they possibly be over-excited for 10 hours at a time! If they were, I’m sure I would have spotted hundreds of adverts for dog psychiatrists.

At least the stray cats don’t bark. Nor do they keep you awake at night with their constant meowing. But there are thousands of them just strolling around, sometimes in twos and threes, slipping through hedges and balancing on walls. I met one today when I was resetting the dish which had blown down during the night. It introduced itself quite unexpectedly by rubbing itself along the inside of my leg while I was concentrating on the wee light which tells me how strong the signal is. Ok so we got off on the wrong foot, or should I say it got off on the end of my right foot. But undaunted, back it slunk, meowing pitifully at me with that “Why won’t you stop what you’re doing and pay some attention to me?” look on its face.

Eventually it won the face-off and my search for a distant satellite was put on temporary hold while I had a conversation in my best Italian with a cat. As with the dogs and their barking, I failed to interpret anything the puss was saying to me, although I was suspicious it might have been enquiring about the possibility of a free tin of sardines. I hesitated, swithering between my instinctive liking of the feline species and my projected lunch for today. For once the cat lost out and slid away under the hedge, no doubt to practise its big-eyed meowing and pathetic but persuasive purr.

Why do there not appear to be stray cats in Scotland? Have we eaten them all? Are they rounded up in the dead of night by the Catfinder General who lodges them on the outskirts of town in a battery of catteries? I honestly do not know why there are thousands of stray cats in Southern Europe and none back at home. It must be the weather. If it’s warmer for longer, maybe the cats never get to live indoors and just become feral felines as there’s nothing better to do.

My title on this, our last day in Tuscany, does not refer to the preceding 600 word rant, but is a direct reference to the downpour we have had today. It wasn’t the heaviest (that was Killin in August) and it wasn’t the longest (that was Belgium in August) but it was probably second in both categories which makes it quite a drop of rain really. When we went to pay our dues and arrange for our departure tomorrow we even took the car just to get to the reception! The place got right soggy too but fortunately we are at the top of a hill so most of the water ran past us and charged down the hill in torrents scaring the meandering moggies away.

Well, Deiva Marina tomorrow, next to Cinque Terre, is our last campsite on this the first half of the adventure. In 5 days time if all goes well we will be home or more accurately in Gavin & Eve’s home in sunny Arbroath. We think coming back could be a bit of a culture shock for us what with pounds instead of Euros, driving on the left and finding streets free of stray cats and barking dogs. Unless we go to Fintry!

Mary will be taking orders for smokies as soon as we get off the plane.

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