75 26 Mar 2013 Piraeus (Athens), Greece Well, it’s back to Athens again and we can read the handwriting on the wall. We are less than two weeks from the end of our journey and we will soon be home (and doing a rush job on my taxes). This has been a trip which has taken us to both familiar places and new ones. On one hand traveling like this allows us to re-taste the pleasures of the past and try new things on the same menu. In the other, it’s a chance to look forward to future new adventures. While our last stop here was cultural (with our visit to the Acropolis), this one is a bit more hedonistic and concentrated on the Plaka. I was fortunate enough to be able to connect to the port’s free Wi-Fi from my cabin and waking early in the morning allowed me to finally catch up on my e-mail and internet stuff without lugging additional equipment into town.We decided to follow a walking tour described in “The Lonely Planet” Greece guidebook. We noticed a line forming at a bank, but don’t know if it was Cypriot or not. While we and our friends, Gerard and Jan (Canadians) have all been to Athens numerous times, this detailed walk (able to blast through this in an hour if you rush, but we took close to four hours) to see new nuances of the city. We started by walking the half hour from the cruise terminal to the Metro station (the transit tickets are also able to be used on buses, but the cigarette kiosks don’t seem to sell them anymore and we needed to get to the station to buy them – 1.40 Euro, or ½ price for seniors – good for 1.5 hours on any public transit – one of ours was acquired by a passenger walking out handing Jan a ticket which still had time left after its validation to get into town). After purchasing a ticket, it’s important to stick it into a validation machine which stamps the time on it. Without following this step, if you are caught, it’s the same as having no ticket at all and the fine is 150 Euros.We switched trains at Monastiraki and went an additional stop on another line to Syntagma, leaving us in front of the parliament and the Hotel Grande Bretagne (Athens fanciest hotel). The underground lobby of the Metro station has a presentation of buildings and architecture found during its construction. Crossing the street puts us in front of the Parliament building (former king’s palace)with its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The changing of the guard is very impressive with their pom-pom shoed soldier goose-stepping towards each other and then freezing with legs outstretched (which makes for incredible photos). There was an American couple trying to take pictures including a hand puppet of some sort which got the soldiers pretty aggravated.From there we headed into the National Gardens and walked past a subterranean display of a Roman bath house to Hadrian’s Arch. Looking through this traditional boundary of ancient Athens towards the town frames the Acropolis. Looking in the other direction frames the Temple of Olympian Zeus – a Roman structure (despite its name) which indicated the Roman exterior of the ancient city. Our path then led through the Plaka and wandered through the tiny colorful alleys of the Anafiotiki district in the foothills directly below the Acropolis which offers vista type views of Athens. We walked past the Roman Agora (the derivation of “agoraphobia”) back to Monistiraki. We ate great Greek salads at “O Thanashs” (Mitropoleos 69) which is a favorite with the locals for kababs. We wandered down Pandrosoy (a market street) checking out the goods and chatting with shopkeepers. We came across Nikos Dimitris T-Shirt Store where the proprietor makes a habit of handing shiny new one cent coins to everyone, kissing the ladies on the cheek and talking about his time in Canada (including showing an old Canadian bank not and a promotional one from Canadian Tires). I think he has similar banknotes (and routines) for different countries, but our friends are Canadian, so that’s the treatment we got. I suspect the coin is to make you feel guilty and buy a t-shirt (didn’t work). We went into jewelry stores where the proprietors swore the jewelry was made by genuine Greeks, while we knew that they had been made in India and Indonesia. A street later found us passing a number of stores selling items to be used in Greek Orthodox churches and clothing for the clergy. Afterwards we passed a number of walls covered with graffiti. A few examples which are “clean enough” to place here: “Wanted alive or dead, Greek Prime Minister. No qualifications or brains required. Only the well-connected need apply. Permanent position, five star salary payable tax-free offshore. Apply on-line or any-line. Troika c/o IMF” “Merkel don’t tax my sun, sea or $hit next”“Return our marbles” (Presumably referring to the Elgin Marbles?)“Yes, I do have sex – the government is $crewing me every day”“Soon all the Greeks will be in -? because of the IMF (with the arrow pointing to a barred window in the wall)(Jeff’s note: “$” used because of site censorship, but should be an “S”)A little further on, we picked up some Greek deserts to sweeten us up - Galaktoboureko (a semolina/custard “knish” covered in honey – and one of my favorites), ekmek kadayifi (shredded yufka, rich in syrup and butter, served with kaymak - clotted/scrambled butter) and Künefe (wire kadayif – like shredded wheat - with a layer of melted cheese in between and it is served hot with pistachio). We also noticed another nearby pastry shop called Gulgliglu which we know is Turkish and wonder how it got lost and ended up in Athens (and whether anyone here realizes it). We continued on to Syntagma station and made our way back to the ship.Interestingly, the Greeks we spoke to pine for the old days when they used drachmas for currency. They said that they were able to get 20% interest in the banks and were able to save money and that housing was affordable. I not only didn’t discuss the conditions back then, but I resisted the chance to talk about the devastation to the Greek economy that would result from having a currency no lenders would want to be paid back in. It is interesting to speculate on what is taking place in Cyprus right now. I think a lot depends on whether Russia is willing to teach a lesson to those who would avoid paying its taxes and build off-shore corporations on Cyprus or whether it will try to protect the interests of its citizens who were financially damaged by the terrible Cypriot banks far from home. We’ll see. It will also be interesting to see if this has any impact on internet gambling as many of the companies involved are incorporated in Cyprus. We may find the US dollar rising (potentially even in tandem with the US equity markets) as money flows to this side of the Atlantic.76 27 Mar 2013 At Sea (Mediterranean Sea) CO 77 28 Mar 2013 Messina, Italy Greek mythology is peppered with references to Messina. According to Homer, Scylla and Charybdis threatened Odysseus at the Strait of Messina. There has been busy traffic between Messina and the Mainland, over the millennium. Sicily has been invaded and conquered by a string of civilizations ranging from the Greeks to the Romans, Saracens, Crusaders, Normans, etc. Each has left its mark on the Sicilian psyche as well as its dialect (which is only about 60% based on Italian). In recent years, there has been much talk of constructing a bridge to facilitate and improve communication. Though a pleasant idea, in theory, this would be almost impossible to implement in practice (not to mention expensive). The main mode of transport between Sicily and the motherland remains a system of ferries, as has been the tradition throughout the centuries.Today the city is growing and developing along the coast, and due to the violent earthquakes that have struck the area on several occasions and areal damage and bombardment during the Second World War, it is almost completely modern. Learning from past lessons, modern Messina is constructed with safety in mind. Streets are wide and buildings relatively low.We got into the port of Messina and where whisked off in a van I arranged ahead of time with some fellow shipmates toward Mt. Etna, continental Europe’s most active volcano. We headed toward the lovely village of Zafferana (named for the Arabic word for yellow – saffron) though vineyards and citrus groves. We stopped at the village to have a beautiful view of the water below and went into church that was situated on the hill. Then we stopped at a store that sold homemade honey and were able to sample a number of different. Next we continued passed through villages that were all closely connected to the volcano's history, and the scenery changed from forest, orchards and vineyards to ash covered roads. The volcano recently erupted ash and the roads still displayed the remnants of the recent eruption (and the locals shovel it up into bags the way that we might do to leaves or snow). As we continued up Mt. Etna's switchback roads, we saw hillsides covered in cones and craters and the remnants of streams of lava. Many of the buildings and even road paving in made our of ash blocks (which our driver persisted in calling “hash”).At 6,200 feet, we stopped to take in the views of Mt. Etna and the region below. There is still tons of snow left on the mountain at this elevation, but not enough to ski (the ski season ended a few weeks ago). There was a ski lift to take people farther up the mountain. At this elevation, there was a ski resort, restaurants and shops, all with great views. We went to the Silvestri Craters and walked around each of the three craters with lava flows dating to the 1892 and 2001 eruptions - still a rich black color. We then traveled through gravity defying series of tunnels and switchbacks on our way to Taormina. Taormina is situated high on Mount Tauro, overlooking the calm Ionian Sea. Taormina is a lovely medieval town with many interesting shops and restaurants. While we came with a pre-arranged private driver with a carload of people, and some others came by cab, independent travelers wishing to come from Messina should consider the train (cheap and schedule available on the internet), and once in Taormina, walk about 800 meters to the right of the station and take the cable gondola up to the town from the beach (also quick and cheap). The town dates back to AD 39. We walked through the ancient Messina Gate and headed towards the Palazzo Corvaja and the impressive theater built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC and renovated by the Romans. We strolled along the Corso Umberto, which is the main pedestrian street (filled with a mixture of high end and souvenir shops) and wandered through the town’s gardens (which look like they are recycled Roman ones). There is also a smaller Roman amphitheater, the Odeon, which is open to the public. It was fortunate that one of the passengers we were wandering with had an old map as the ones in the tourist information office were too small a scale to be useful. We had lunch at a reasonably priced restaurant back on a small side street that you had to walk down several steps to find (Giambero Rosso, Via Naumachie, 11). The view in front of the church was of Mt. Etna and you could see giant clouds of smoke coming from the volcano and covering the sky. This town was great and the views amazing. Our purchase today was a couple of the hard sided, lightweight Samsonite luggage pieces we were looking for. We bought one last summer when we were in Paris (but for some reason these are less expensive in Italy than in any other European country). We prefer these 4.5 kg four wheel spinners which use clamps to close, rather than zippers (which can easily snag on cloths and break). Samsonite makes these in Europe, but doesn’t sell them in the States (our old bulletproof, decade or two old Samsonite & American Tourister pieces weigh too much for today’s stricter weight rules on airplanes). The colors of the new luggage are garish, but I still might spray paint them with magenta and cyan graffiti to make them too ugly to steal (as well as standing out on a luggage carousel).The fruits and vegetables we saw for sale on stands was nothing short of spectacular (with aromatic, but thick skinned lemons used for making the local liqueur lemonccello adding to the color scheme). There were stores showing marzipan fruits (and even roasted chickens) which were indistinguishable from the original. The traditional cannoli pastry graced the windows of pastry shops. While cough drops purchased in pharmacies are effective, they are also expensive (about $.20) each).Our driver suddenly pulled off the road at one spot to pick up petrol at 1.67 Euro per liter, which he said was a cheap price. (“Super” gasoline is known here as “benzene”).I engaged our driver in conversation and his comments sounded like he was prompted by the Greeks we spoke to a couple of days ago. We mourned Italy’s joining the Euro and said that he wished they would go back to the Lire (when he could save money and get some return on it). He wanted to be paid in cash because he was taxed 50% and didn’t see why he should share his earnings with the government (it was bad enough that he had to pay commissions to travel agents). I told him that he was lucky I didn’t ask to share in his tax savings by way of a discount (but I smiled when I said it :- ). He told me that the Italian public TV stations “RAI” cost 100 Euros a year, but he’s found a way to get them for free. Basically, he maximizes the amount of “black” money he makes and pays as little tax as possible. He appears to be the stereotype of the Italian middle class. While everyone seems to point at wealthy Italian (or Greeks or Spaniards) as being the ones that dodge taxes, apparently it is close to 75% of the population. Either Italy has a surprising number of wealthy or else most of the population participates in this sport and are simply using the wealthy class’s actions as their rationalization. He further explained that the politicians were parasites who took bribes, embezzled money and had multiple sexual relations with young women (though this didn’t seem to be more than a chuckle) – and I thought about how similar politicians were world-wide. He said that the bureaucrats ended up with full pensions (at their final year’s compensation) upon retiring and that the system was bloated with them, but they had their own very powerful left wing party (which had evolved from the Italian Communist Party). The right wing party was headed by Berlusconi and was able to fund lavish election campaigns. The middle class of centrist small businessmen such as himself had been disenfranchised compared to the two extremes. Since the government never represented them, this provided yet another excuse not to fund the corrupt government (of extreme right wingers supported by left wing workers) with hard earned wages stolen by tax collectors (Sicily has only one poisonous snake – a viper – but apparently many of these hiding in wait for the unwary). He indicated that he was not paying “protection money” to the Mafia (who seem to be more interested in running banks to launder the profit they male on construction projects funded by the government – and that sort of thing), but said that if they tried to place yet another layer of “taxes” on him, he would shut his business rather than pay.When we can aboard we heard stories of a couple of people (including one of the ship’s dining room stewards who should have known better) buying extraordinarily cheap i-Pads and then when they got to the ship, opening the package – only to find out that a small stone had been substituted for the electronics. In Bali, one of the items sold is intricately carved cow bones (presumably this would have been ivory in the past). They all look very similar, but there are vast differences in the quality of the workmanship (and therefore value). It is normal for the sellers, by sleight of hand, to substitute which you end up with. When I bought a pair a few weeks ago, despite repeated attempts by the guy I bought them from to take them from me and wrap them, I insisted on holding them in my hand and asked him to give the wrapping material to my wife (he was pretty aggravated, but since the transaction took place through the openings of a fence there wasn’t much he could do to get the “showroom model” back).At about 8:30PM, as we sailed towards Naples, we were treated to Mt. Stromboli erupting. 78 29 Mar 2013 Naples, Italy Sicilians do not have a love of Naples (a common “curse” is va fi Napoli or “go to Naples”) and they think the singers here wail too much (think of O sola mia), but I’ve always liked the place. It’s a cultural center filled with the “normal” compliment of churches, masterpieces, as well as the Greek and Roman styled buildings that any other major city around here has. It’s Good Friday and we expected many of the stores to be shut in celebration of the feast day, but that wasn’t the case.We are going to be approaching Naples from a different direction from what a first time visitor should do. Given time, it would make sense to take a train or bus to either (preferably both) Pompeii or Herculaneum (a smaller, but more upper class city). These are two of the most famous excavation sites in the world. Thriving cities 1,900 years ago, they were devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. when 30 feet of volcanic ash and pumice stone covered them. In Naples the Royal Palace is magnificent and I would encourage anyone who comes to Naples to take the time out to see this place.Another common side trip is taking the ferry to Capri or the hydrofoil to one of the towns along the Amalfi coast (Positano, where we spent a week last summer, being one of the more popular ones) – but the season hasn’t started yet and I suspect those who take these trips will be disappointed by shuttered stores. Another option would be to rent a car and drive down the Amalfi coast. This one of the world’s most exciting – let’s call it breathtaking - roads to drive (though I think the road linking the Grande Corniche to the Moyenne Corniche through La Turbie in southern France has more of a video game feel to it). If this doesn’t get the adrenalin pumping in a driver (not to mention the passengers ? ), nothing will. In our case, we’ve done all that in the past and it frees us to discover parts of Naples we haven’t driven through or walked through in the past. Instead, we took a walking tour of the Spacca Napoli neighborhood of the city. This area is full of churches (including Gesu Nuovo which sports some bas reliefs by Donatello – it seems the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were very busy in Italy :- ). The area is also home to a broad collection of narrow renascence period streets filled with jewelry shops, pastry places and other establishments which tourists would appreciate. My wife got her hair done at a locally recommended parlor (Capellimania at Via S. Chiara, 7 who corrected the mediocre job done in Jakarta) and she is now more beautiful than ever. In the meantime, I grazed at the various food shops and took advantage of some free internet.Ah, the food! Pizza was invented in Naples, and there are plenty of authentic pizzerias to choose from. That said, many places prepare their pizzas and pastries far in advance and eating them is far from a perfect experience. I can recommend an international chain named Rossa Pomadoro, that makes a decent pizza which is located across from the Royal Palace on Piazza Trieste e Trento. The best place to get desert near here is to walk through the unbelievable Galleria Umberto (a glass domed covered 19th century shopping mall), making a left and exiting out the Via Toledo exit (a very nice main drag for shopping), picking up sfogliatella (a delicious clam-shaped cheese filled Neapolitan pastry) at the Pintauro pastry shop (a pasticceria founded in 1785) located at Via Toledo, 275. These are the perfect consistency with each thin pastry leaf crackling at just the right moment. If you are a glutton for punishment, you could walk back into the Galleria, stopping at the second pastry shop on the right and pick up a handful of miniature sfogliatella (called conetto’s here) filled with Nutella instead of cheese. Another variety is a longer proportion called a coda d’aragosta or lobster tail which is filled with chocolate or lemon cream. Cannolis are available but, frankly, these are better in Sicily where they are freshly made – in Naples they sit around all day waiting for tourists and in order to keep the shells from getting soggy the cream is made too dry.Coming back to the ship I heard that one of the passengers had his pocket picked. He had been wearing cargo pants with closed pockets low on his leg and thought he was immune. A man was blocking his exit from a bus and when he tried to push past, apparently a second man reached down from an adjacent seat and cleaned out the pocket. He somehow retrieved his wallet (not sure how). Despite that hiccup (which could happen in almost any large city), I have always felt at home in Naples and think that it is a wonderful town to walk around in and which offers lots of opportunity for day trips.79 30 Mar 2013 Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy Civitavecchia (old city) has few redeeming characteristics other than being close to Rome.Ah, Roma – where all roads lead. Last summer we breezed through directly to the airport without stopping here (as we had spent a few days’ time in Rome on each of two other occasions only a couple of years ago and decided to invest our time elsewhere). While it is impossible to “see” Rome from a cruise ship, we have, over the years, spent a cumulative number of weeks in the “Eternal City”.It’s only about an hour and a half train ride from Civitavecchia to Termini Station in Rome. While many of the passengers continue out of abject terror or apathy continue to pay for the ship’s excursions (transfer to Rome and back by bus is sold at $99), there is a kiosk just to the right of the exit gate of the cruise port which sells the “BIRG” card for 12 Euros (up from 9 Euros last year) which gives you 24 hours of universal local transit – including the train to Rome and all Roman Metro and bus lines.Our group has expanded beyond our four Canadian tablemates and now also includes Julie, one of the officer’s wives (and an effervescent personality from the north of England and an accent that I could easily confuse for Cockney) and Briggetta (a bit on the chunky side and older than I would have preferred for this sort of thing as the walk was akin to a forced march – but she was a tough bird and took the abuse with a smile until getting a bit worn at the edges near the end). While we’ve crisscrossed the city in the past and Gerard/Jan have as well, Leslie/Bob had only been on cruise excursions in the past and the two solo women had never been to the city. This turned into a day-long exercise of herding cats as people tended to go on tangents from time to time to time. While I won’t pretend that the ad-lib walking tour we took them on showed everything in the city, it was the best Gerard and I could cook up on the fly and would make sense to give the flavor of the place to anyone whose time was limited to a few hours.Our route was sort of an ad-hock thing and Gerard and I decided to get off the train at St. Peter’s station in Vatican City in order to try to beat the pre-Easter crowds (tomorrow is Easter Sunday) rather than staying on until the last stop at Termini Station. It was fun to watch the facial expressions and listen to the exclamations coming from the two newbies as we turned a corner and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica came into view.The plaza was prepared for crowds later on in the day but the lines were only a couple of hours long. We decided to show off Rome rather than kill the day (well, I probably wouldn’t call seeing the Vatican Museum, Basilica and Sistine Chapel “killing the day”, but it would have limited the time) going into most of the buildings we will be seeing during the day. After a photo stop including some gaudily dressed Swiss Guards, we headed down the obelisk lined Via della Concilliazone to the Pope’s redoubt – the Castel Saint Angelo (made famous in Dan Brown’s books).While, given the time, this would have been another building well worth exploring, we headed across the Tiber River on the Ponte Saint Angelo and turned left (eastward) about a block later to find the quickest route to the Piazza Navona. Over the years, this huge oval has been home to mock sea battles and carriage racing. More importantly, today it is home to Restaurante Tre Scalini (at 31-32-35). While this is a fine (expensive) restaurant, we visited for a specific reason. I had them open up their gelatieria and make us tortufoe’s (Italian for truffle) at 4 Euro’s each. Picture a ball of dark chocolate gelato (a creamy soft Italian ice cream) with a cherry and chunks of broken dark chocolate mixed in. Now it’s dipped (and frozen) in hard chocolate. To serve, it is smashed flat like a hamburger shape and served with whipped cream on top. It’s worth a trip to Rome just to eat this confection.Our current route was in the opposite direction from what we originally envisioned if we had disembarked at Termini station. The original route would have taken us to the Synagogue of Seven Congregations (which has a fascinating tour) and across the bridges through Isola to see some of Rome’s first churches. Lunch would have either been in one of the traditionally Roman restaurants (heavy on artichoke dishes) in the former Jewish ghetto or on the opposite side of the Tiber in the Trastevere part of the city. Instead, we walked a few blocks further east to one of my favorite buildings anywhere – the Pantheon. It is hard to imagine that this incredible building has stood for close to two millennia and is still an eye-popper. Its massive dome, the world’s largest for over a thousand years, with its open oculus takes one’s breath away.While our transit passes would have allowed us to take the Metro and busses, the sights are frequently only 4-6 blocks apart, so it’s hardly worth waiting for mass transit (but the distances add up and I suspect we did about seven miles of walking through the city). While Rome is a large “modern” city, similar to other Italian cities, much of it consists of buildings which are hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years old – not “Middle East Old”, but much older than in the States. From here, the obvious next stop was the Trevi Fountain. The crowds here were intense and the pickpockets were obvious to anyone who knows what to look for (at least three passengers had their pockets cleaned out today in Rome). There is a legend (probably promoted by the fountain cleaning union) that if you throw a coin in the fountain you will return to Rome. We headed north across Via del Triton following a street named “Propaganda” to the Spanish Steps (given by the King of Spain a few centuries ago to replace a muddy path). At the Steps, we took a left down the Via Condotti to gawk at windows displaying products to the crowd who would end up only wearing the names involved on Chinese knockoffs. Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Bulgari, Cartier, Fendi, Furla, Valentino, etc., etc. But it’s fun to look.While we should have dived into the Metro around now and head (changing at Termini) for the Coliseum, it became obvious that the natives were getting restless and it was feeding time at the zoo. We turned left on Via Corso and dropped into “Antica Tavola Calda Del Corso” (at Via Del Corso, 321). This jamb packed place has what seems to be over 100 different varieties of Italian foods on display. You choose what you want to eat, which is put on a tray. You are handed a paper ticket with your bill, pay at a cashier, and then return to pick up your tray and head to a table. Everyone got different dishes, all of which were great. Osso Bucco (a casserole of veal shank flavored with garlic, tomatoes and wine) showed up as did three different preparations of artichokes – and of course tira misu (a little pick-me-up) for desert.Well, in for a penny and all that, again we threw logic to the winds and, rather than take the Metro, took Gerard’s suggestion to take the Via del Corso down to the Monument of Vittoria Emanuel II which houses the Unknown Soldier. After watching the changing of the guards (not as impressive as the one in Athens) we climbed to the upper level of the monument to take aerial photos of the Coliseum (there is an elevator which you can buy a ticket to go higher up, but we didn’t as we were getting as bit worn out by now).Now we’re heading deep into the heart of ancient Rome. With the Trajan’s Column and Trajan’s Market to our left and the Palatino to our right we marched towards the Coliseum (a bit disconcerting to see that this is the center of a traffic circle) – avoiding the guys dressed like gladiators and centurions looking to make a buck by posing for photos and the bunch of obvious pickpockets looking to make a living. Icons such as the Arch of Constantine and the smaller Arch of Titus are as thick as mushrooms around here.At this point the Briggitta’s feet were about work out and it was beginning to rain so we figured we’d call it a day. We dropped underground at the Colosseo (Coliseum) Metro station and took the train to Termini Station (two stops). Here we found out that the train back to Civitavecchia was on track #29 – and that tracks 25 through 29 were 400 meters past the last track of the main portion of the station. The trip back passed some very nice beach areas once it hit the coast and took about an hour and a quarter. We had left at about 9AM and reached the ship at about 6PM which I figure was a pretty good day’s work considering I didn’t even get a tip :- ).Rome, like Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai and the like should rank right up there with visiting the Pyramids, Matchu Pichu, Angkor Wat and other bucket list items. 80 31 Mar 2013 At Sea (Mediterranean Sea) CO We woke up to the shake rattle and roll of a bit of a storm at sea as we pass between Sardinia and Corsica on our way to Spain. We have been delayed a bit so we will be staying a couple of hours later in the first port. While this sort of banging around would have likely had some of the guests diving for the nearest barf bag a couple of months ago, most now treat it as a blend of annoying and humorous movement at this stage of the game (or at least those without sea legs are keeping to their cabins. For anyone concerned with this sort of thing, I recommend “Sea Bands” – a pair of elastic wrist bands with a button which presses against an acupuncture point on the wrist.Jeff(In Alicante, Spain and wishing that this trip would last another three months instead of another week :- (
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