Rural Spaceman’s Lisbon

Wordpretzels, you may have been aware that I have been an intrepid traveller in the last few weeks, travelling to Portugal for a city break with Lady Barton St Mary. I’d like to share my impressions of this rather beautiful city.

Having landed at the airport, we decided to ‘go native’ and take the metro to our hotel in the centre of Lisbon. Buying a ticket was fairly easy, despite my dim-wittedness and determination to ignore the advice from the very helpful railway employee. Yes, they have friendly, helpful rail staff.

We bought a very cheap ticket and metro card (Lisbon’s answer to an oyster card) and sat out the 11 stations to San Sebastiao, completing our journey to the Real Palacio Hotel on foot. This was after a long day of travelling, so we entertained the local populace with some tradition English marital bickering intermixed with an occasional demonstration of suitcase toppling (mine was top heavy). As it transpired, the walk to the hotel was a matter of a few hundred metres, but when tired and hefting half a ton of shirts, shorts and high heeled shoes (hers, not mine) at 10pm, things always seem a little harder.

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‘You don’t have to be rich, to be my girl, you don’t have to be cool, to rule my world…

The hotel was lovely. The following morning, we sat in the hotel breakfast room whilst Lady Barton St Mary planned the day’s itinerary, thoughtfully consuming her yoghurt and fruit. Essentially, it meant making our way to Praça do Marquês de Pombal to catch one of the Greyline hop on/hop off open top buses that covered the entire city on different coloured routes. The square had an enormous statue of the pop star Prince, after ‘When Doves Cry’, before he became a symbol and about the time he was bonking Sheena Easton.

We hopped on to the blue bus route which basically covered the eastern side of the city. The man tore our tickets (rather worryingly) before handing us a pair of red headphones. You plugged these into the jacks in the back of the seats and tuned into a channel that spoke your language. The gaps were filled with some rather pleasant fado, Portuguese folk music.

I had trouble concentrating on the commentary, since I tend to doze off on buses, but here are some of the highlights of our hop on/ hop off tour, lasting a couple of days.

BAIXA/ALFAMA (Green Route)

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A shot of Praca do Comercial: apologies to the former Portuguese royals

A lovely place which is full of shops, cafes and tourists and is the home of fado. This is where you can find The Praça do Comércio,  a large expansive, bright square with amazing statues and a real feel of Portugal’s sea faring prowess. Being a rather narrow country with lots of sea around it, they say that Portuguese people have the sea in their blood, but this is silly, since sea water is very dirty and would no doubt kill you if it entered your bloodstream in any great amount.

This grand place is where Portugal took the first steps in becoming a republic, assassinating King Carlos I and his heir Luis Filipe in 1908. They obviously couldn’t see the point in keeping something that needed lots of taxes but sold gazillions of tea cups, bunting and tiny national flags once every decade.

It’s also where there is a statue of Pedro Avares Cabral, remembered for discovering Brazil. However, the people who lived there already were a bit taken aback by being discovered, but as Lady BSM pointed out, their opinion hardly mattered once the Portuguese had slaughtered them all.

We had a very leisurely lunch, served by a delightful Portuguese girl from Poland. Beer in Lisbon costs about 4 euros a litre in cafes and restaurants, at least half the price it would be in England. Therefore, I thought it proper that I drank at least twice as much as I normally would at lunchtime. This made the hop on/hop off bus’s commentary even more confusing; for example, this is what I recall from our other tours:

BELEM (red route)

IMG_2213A lovely journey, passing the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge which is a replica of the Golden Gate in San Francisco, overlooked by a replica of the massive Jebus in Rio (Cristo Rei).

Here is where you will find a very big church called Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, named after St Jeronimo, the patron saint of jumping out of aeroplanes. You could queue up to go inside and see the tomb of Vasco de Gama, famous discoverer and inventor of Gama bears, those colourful sweets so loved by small children.

A short walk away you can find Torres de Belem, a huge fortification that was originally built in the middle of the river Tagus to scare

Torre de Belem. Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.

Torre de Belem. Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.

the bejebus out of potential invaders. Conveniently, it has now been towed into the shore so that people can queue up for hours and look inside it instead of the lovely big poster sized pictures adorning the walkway along the river bank.

We also took the opportunity to join the enormous queue for Lisbon’s famous cake shop, Casa Pasteis de Belem, buying some of the famous Portuguese custard tarts with a secret recipe. They were lovely, but no different to the other custard tarts I ate in Portugal (I ate a lot of them).

RESTAURADORES

Lovely square with fountains and a statue of King John I, who was revered in Portugal and really stuck it to the man abroad. By the way, there are a lot of statues in Lisbon.

SINTRA

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Sintra Castle – King Ferdinand II built this as the first ever Disneyland in 1790. It ultimately failed, since Walt Disney hadn’t been born and film wouldn’t be invented for another 100 years.

Not in Lisbon, but a 40 minute train journey away. The best way to see Sintra is to find a nice café in the centre of Lisbon with wi-fi access and view it on the internet. The train is a bulk standard one and very full. The transportation delights do not end there. You then have to catch a bus up the hill to Sintra Castle, a steep ascent of 2 km that, due to the huge amount of traffic, takes another 30 minutes. Once you’ve queued at the ticket office and joined the queue for the small bus to the castle, you’re hoping it’s going to be pretty bloody special. In fairness, with help from the audio tour, it was an interesting and enjoyable experience. Homesick Londoners would love the whole day, being crammed into trains and buses next to travel weary male smokers wearing polyester football shirts, allowing easy access to their heady aroma of body odour and stale tobacco.

The only disappointment for a Londoner, used to paying eye wateringly high prices for substandard food, would be the excellent restaurant there. It was here I learned that your choice of beer in Lisbon depends on which football team you support; Sagres if you’re Benfica, Super Bock if you’re Porto.

More entertainment ensued upon the arrival of the bus returning us to the railway station. Having waited an hour in the queue, the European tactic of ignoring said queue backfired on several miscreants as the furious Italian ladies set about them with loud shouts and slaps to their arms. The offenders slunk back to where they came from, under the glare of the indignant elderly matriarchs. We didn’t get on the bus, so decided to walk down the hill. Two other buses overtook us, the Italian ladies waving as they passed. We half-heartedly practised our marital bickerings from San Sebastiao, but it was all too much effort.

EATING

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Casa Pasteis de Belem – a typical British family’s daily cake intake whilst on holiday in Portugal.

At last, my faith in Portuguese cooking was restored. Having suffered a traditional fish soup last year in the Algarve – (essentially a tin of salmon in boiling water, accompanied by an Eastern European maître de standing next to me kissing his fingers and saying ‘delicious’) – we found two wonderful restaurants, namely Sessenta and O Talho.

In Sessenta (we could see the restaurant from our hotel room, but Lady BSM forbade me from shouting my order out of the window), I ordered a Turbot meal which ranks in my top ten dishes of all time. I loved it. We returned the following evening.

O Talho (The Butcher) is a restaurant behind a butchers’ shop, where we had a fantastic steak dinner for a very reasonable price. They are both in El Corte Ingles area of Lisbon, if you’re interested.

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Our breakfast in Lisbon.

As we sat in our customary seats at the local bakery, eating cake for breakfast, I decided that Lisbon is a very fine place to visit. The people are genuine, polite, dignified, and friendly and prepared to put up with me.

I am now at home, trying to remove 9lbs of Portuguese custard tarts and several gallons of Satres (Benfica!) that has become attached to my body in the form of blubber.

I look forward to returning soon.

 

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Losing Your Faith in Humankind

Picture the scene, Wordpretzels. We’re about to land at Lisbon Portela Airport at the start of our holiday.

Captain: “Ladies and gentleman, please remain seated and keep your seatbelts fastened until the seatbelt signs are off. The weather in Lisbon is fine and the temperature 20 degrees celcius. The local time is 8.30pm.”

Man sitting behind us:” ‘Ere. That’s the same time as it is at home.”

Female partner: “Oh yeah! That’s funny, innit? Cos, when we go to Spain, it’s like 2 hours ahead of us.”

Man sitting behind us: “Yeah, you’re right. Why’s it the same time in Portugal, then?”

(Pause).

Female partner: “I dunno. I think it’s something to do with England owning Portugal once or summink…”

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Family Pragmatism

Lady Barton St Mary and I are travelling to Portugal today; our children, Master Johnny and Miss Katherine, will be flying out to join us next week.

Me: Do you want to take this European plug adaptor?

Master Johnny: Erm.. yeah but you might as well take it with you in your luggage.

Me: I could, but what if our plane crashes with no survivors?

Master Johnny thinks for a moment.

“Buy a new one at the airport with our inheritance?”

Assuming I survive I will be away for a couple of weeks.

Be good, don’t open the door to strangers and no playing with the fire.

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Rural Spaceman’s Cycle of Disappointment

“How would you like a bike for your birthday?” my dad enquired over Sunday tea.

I was so surprised, I nearly dropped my winkle. However, I managed to hold onto its shell, my position frozen, pin poised in my other hand.

“Oh. Yes. Yes, I would like that very much!” I beamed. Wow! Getting a bike for my 13th birthday! How brilliant!

Of course, I had an old bike I’d learned to ride on when I was 7, my dad taking time to leg it round the council green outside our house, holding on as I pedalled furiously, hoping he wouldn’t let go. Then, one day, as I forced the pedals around, wide eyed and sweaty, I heard my dad behind me say, “You’ve got it!”I was riding a bike!

It was one that I kept riding around the estate for the next few years. As a bicycle, it was very low maintenance. No unnecessary gears (well, no gears at all), a front brake and most importantly, solid tyres, which meant there was none of the trouble I now get with punctures. On the minus side, the ride was rather robust. Riding over a bump or kerb jolted every bone in your body and woe betide you if you were sitting on the saddle when you did. After that experience I’m surprised I ever had children.

racing bike 70s

The Ossiemobile.

So, the prospect of getting a new bike was very exciting. Many of my mates already had bikes that they could ride further than the council green. Ossie had a bright green racer, with drop handle bars and ten gears.

 

Budgie owned a chopper, with a long, comfy back rest and a huge gear stick in the middle of the crossbar. This was the sort of bike I coveted.

Look where that gear stick is. I can't imagine that would ever cause injury.

Look where that gear stick is. Can’t imagine that would ever cause injury.

My dad smiled, peeling a prawn and dipping it into his salad cream.

“Good,” he said, taking a bite of the shellfish.

I thought about asking what sort of bike he had in mind, but knew it would be impolite to do so. In our family, it would have been considered a sign of being spoiled, but the mere fact that I was getting a bike, a brand new bike, was proof itself that I was already spoilt.

For the next two weeks leading up to my birthday, I told my friends that I too would be joining their ranks, being able to race off to different parts of Borehamwood and beyond on adventures, having timed races, building ramps and obstacle courses. What colour would it be? Red? White? Blue? How many gears?

My birthday was on a Sunday, a weekend, which meant all the family could be there to see the unveiling of my new mean machine. After a cursory visit to the bathroom, I dressed and clattered down the stairs. Mum had prepared breakfast, expecting my sister Janet, her husband and my young niece Suzanne. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t long before the doorbell rang and after receiving my cards and gifts from Janet, we all sat around the table in the kitchen for some bacon and eggs. The anticipation was immense, but I managed to stay patient, coming from a family used to deferred gratification.

“Right,” said my dad, rising from his seat, “come and have a look at this.”

I followed him to the door into our back porch. Under a heavy, dark grey blanket was the unmistakeable bike shape. It appeared to have long, sit up handle bars – a chopper!

Dad pulled the blanket off the bike for a dramatic reveal. I looked in disbelief. This is what I saw.

No. Please, no.

No. Please, no.

“There,” he said, “what about that? A Raleigh Small Wheel! It has 3 gears – Sturmey Archer – all changeable on the handle bar.”

My mind raced. My inner self shouted WHAT IS …THAT!

But not my real self. My mum and dad had saved for this bike. Mum wanted me to have ‘a sensible bike, not one of those silly ones that Teddy Boys ride’. (I hadn’t ever seen a Teddy boy. They’d disappeared from general circulation about a year before I was born and as far as I knew they didn’t ride bicycles). I had been brought up to be grateful. I swallowed hard, my heart sinking like a stone in a deep, deep loch.

Mum and dad were looking at me intensely. I gathered myself and gave them a big smile.

“Thank you!” I said, going over and giving my mum a kiss and a hug, something that was usually quite formal in my family at the time. Dad ruffled my hair.

“I told you he’d like it,” mum said to dad, pointedly.

I looked back at my new wheels. There was an enormous basket on the back.

“Ideal for getting errands,” my mum explained to me later on.

I did go out on my bike. To the tremendous credit of all the kids on my estate, none of them laughed at me. In retrospect, that may have been because a) it was too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel, b) they all felt so tremendously sorry for me they couldn’t bring themselves to take the piss or c) I was obviously so mentally disturbed to ride around on a shopping bike in my teens that if they did take the piss, they feared I would appear in the middle of the night and murder them in their beds.

In fact, I even tried a couple of long distance cycles, but having only three gears and very small wheels, it was a bit of an effort and I only managed a 10 mile journey at most. Oh, and forget ramps. I was unlikely to get up enough speed to reach the top of one. Especially when I was carrying mum’s shopping on the back. It’s difficult with a bag of spuds weighing you down and if I cracked her eggs there’d be hell to pay for.

After a while, the bike began to be left in the cupboard under the stairs, becoming a hanger for my dad’s overalls and mum’s old dusters and tea towels.

Mum and dad still hoped I would ride it though. In fact, many years later, they phoned and asked if I wanted it.

“It might be handy for getting around town,” mum said.

“It’s Ok, mum. Maybe you should try and sell it.”

I was 25 years old and newly married by this time.

So, the bike was photographed and put up for sale in the local newsagent. Within a couple of weeks, an older man called round and bought it. As far as I know, he wasn’t a Teddy Boy.

Bye bye, my magnificent  steed.

 

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My Music Video Directing Debut – The Muiras

It all started with a message from Drew Norton, former front man of The Nilon Bombers, the chart topping indie band from the 1990s.

Drew happens to be my brother in law, but I assure you, it’s not family loyalty that makes me like his music. I could easily listen politely and never bother again, but the truth is, I’m a real fan. I listen to his stuff all the time.

But the most exciting thing is, after nearly 20 years, he’s writing music again and sharing it with me. Which is why I received the message:

“Anybody fancy making a video for one of the new tracks?” he asked back in December.

I did. I’m quite fond of  making animated films, so took the opportunity to offer my services by making one for ‘Ruby Sun’, which, to be honest, is mostly instrumental. What’s more, it’s extremely catchy. Whilst I made this video, taking 6 months as I learned the intricacies of the Muvizu software, I often found myself humming it for days, even though I’ve heard it over 300 times, I imagine.

 

 

You’re humming it now, aren’t you? Want more? Then visit his soundcloud account to hear more brilliant songs.

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Summertime in a Fairy Tale House

It’s the back end of July, which means I get to have a few weeks away from (almost) voluntary work, because having time away from the shop is healthy but also due to the fact they won’t pay me during the school holidays. Now that Master Johnny and Miss Katherine are over 18 and able to look after themselves officially (they’ve managed it for years unofficially), it means my parenting skills are hardly ever required. Obviously, my parenting skills have always been what could be described as ‘light touch’. The technical term, apparently, is ‘Benign Neglect’ – if you are inclined to believe what the consultant at A&E told me on a couple of occasions. I thought he’d made it up until some clever social worker used the same phrase.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is they’re perfectly capable of watching TV all day without me checking on them every other hour, which means I have time to do lots of other stuff, like writing blogs, making videos and playing on the Play Station, which is something I couldn’t do years ago because there was always a bloody kid on it.

Exciting times!

However, there are a couple of drawbacks:

1. The shop has now given me a special magic key ring which allows me to look at what’s being said at (almost) voluntary work, which means I can get involved in (almost) voluntary work every day, rather than build a decent team on Pro Evolution Soccer Master League that can compete for European glory.

2. There are grown up jobs to do at home.

Lady Barton St Mary, aware that my time away from (almost) voluntary work may lead me into an idle and wasteful lifestyle, has used all of her creative corporate thinking to devise an effective work development programme to make sure that my daytimes are not frittered away watching cat videos on Faceache.

My initial self assessment interview went well, with a reasonable list of SMART targets agreed for the coming weeks. Main issues included renovating and painting the windows of Randall Towers; trimming the gigantic hedge that hides the electrified fence from the villagers and repairing the dining chairs in the K word.*

Hasn’t he got staff to do all this? I hear you say. Well, of course, but Lady BSM didn’t become a financial guru without driving through efficient fiscal methods, so using me as an effective member of house staff is an effective money saver.

Having signed the appropriate papers and agreed to a performance review in 4 weeks’ time, I set about the dining chairs with enthusiasm. Amazingly, a substance called Hard as Nails worked wonders, although the antique dining chairs have yet to be tested by Master Johnny and his special ‘lean back on two chair legs to get the Reggae Reggae sauce’ move.

One chair left to be Hard as Nailed and my first objective will be achieved.

So on to the windows. Climbing 30 feet into the air on a light aluminium ladder isn’t my idea of fun, but I had a job to do and Deal or No Deal is on a summer break, so I was very brave.

I’d forgotten one thing. Like most parts of Randall Towers, a gothic stately home, the window frames are made of ancient meringue. Additionally, the previous ‘craftsperson’ had stuck the glass into the frame with what appeared to be Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum in 1965. Because they didn’t want to remove the old putty, the glazing was proud of the frame and a new frame formed with more Wrigley’s, though it may have been Bazooka Joe.

I carefully removed all the chewing gum and managed to lift out the glass in one piece. I lovingly scraped out all the old putty, smoothed the edges with sandpaper and introduced the antique glass back into the frame, held with fresh putty. Carefully balancing on the ladder, I squeezed the putty around the frame and worked it into a smooth bevel with my putty knife. I would have stepped back to admire my work, but that would have led to my shins ending up in my hip joints.

I cleaned all my equipment and returned it to our garage, satisfied with my day’s work.

Later on, I remembered that I’d left a chisel on the window sill, so made my way to the room to collect it. The newly fitted old glass had a perfect split right down the middle, proving that all the aged glass in Randall Towers is made of Spangles. I am now convinced that this old place is where the witch in Hansel and Gretel lived before all the sweets went way past their sell by date.

 

 

Randall Towers - circa 1880.

Randall Towers – circa 1880.

Of course, I will persevere. I have a review to pass. Once I’ve got over this little problem, I have to ask our neighbours if I can come on their land to paint more windows, hoping they’ve forgotten the time during another work programme when I flooded their house.

But that’s another story…

 

 

* K Word – see blog The K Word from 2012. Not for those of a nervous disposition.

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Legs or Pedals?

Wordpretzels, the summer is here and the weather is clement – perfect for getting the bike out of the garage and going for a ride. Or is it better to put on my Asics and set off for a run?

Which one is better? Cycling or running? Perhaps the best way to tackle this issue is to look at the salient points.

Expense

I suppose that running wins hands down when it comes to expense. All you have to do to go for a run is strip down to your kaks, pull on a pair of plimsolls and hit the road, whereas cycling requires something called a bicycle, which is available across a huge price range, from ‘mega cheap it must be rubbish’ to ‘it’s so expensive you’re an idiot’. That’s before we consider a helmet, gloves, brightly coloured cycling jersey, shorts with a chamois gusset (easy girls), cycling socks, cycle shoes and oh, the pedals required to fit the cycle shoes.

However, if you continue to run regularly in your kaks and plimsolls, you will blister so badly all your toenails will go black, your crotch will rot and your nipples will fall off. This may not happen, if in the interim time you’ve been arrested for running around in public in your kaks.

You will be required to go to a ‘specialist shop’ where somebody in a track suit will tell you whether you are an overpronator, underpronator or a neutral before removing a sizable amount of cash from your person for a lurid pair of cushioned running shoes. You will also be motivated to buy a garishly coloured polyester top, some running shorts – too short and

Cyclists - like runners, but with different silly shoes.

Cyclists – like runners, but with different silly shoes.

you look as if you’re hurrying to the nearest gay club; too long and the chafing will make you walk like you’ve pooed yourself for a couple of days. Personally, I wear long lycra shorts that are clingy, accompanied by a suitably long top to prevent any hint of indecent exposure. Well, at least until next month when my case comes up.

Then there are the running socks; you know the type – the white ankle type, only worn by middle aged men and St Trinian’s schoolgirls.

 

 

The Experience

I’ve had several discussions about the benefits of running over cycling. I realise that cycling is a healthy pastime that can help with fitness and weight loss. However, I like cycling because it means I can travel at least twice as far as I could when running. But is it better for my fitness? When you run, for example, you can’t struggle to the top of a hill and then sit back and look at the scenery as your legs freewheel down the hill. No, you have to keep your legs moving. Also, there’s the ‘refuelling’ issue. When running over a

considerable distance, you may consume a sports gel at a certain point. It’s unlikely that you’d stop halfway through your run at the pub and have a couple of pints and some chips, which seems to be the habit for a large number of cyclists. Our local pub is very popular with cyclists, most of who seem to spend longer in the bar than in the saddle. The stretching of lycra under the strain of a well-stocked beer belly is almost audible.

Maintenance

I’m afraid this one is a definite winner for running. I have a terrible record when it comes to punctures. I think that more often than not I get a puncture when out on a cycle. In fact, on my last jaunt, I had a total of 3 punctures in 24 miles. To combat this, I spent a lot of money on some ‘puncture proof’ tyres.

“They’re quite difficult to fit,” explained the bike shop owner, after taking my money. Cheers then.

I burst 2 inner tubes trying to fit them.

“Go to Halfords and get them to fit them,” Lady Barton St Mary suggested.

“Certainly not,” I replied haughtily, “I’m pretty sure I can fit a new inner tube.”

“Then I’d advise you to take your bike wheel, buy an inner tube and fit it in the car park. Any trouble and you can always buy more inner tubes.”

What did she think I was! A cack handed idiot?

After bursting two more inner tubes whilst sweating and swearing profusely in Halfords’ car park, I gave up and returned to the shop before I started to frighten passing children, who were staring wild eyed at the old man in the sodden shirt and oil stained suit shouting ‘Fuck my old boots’ at the top of his voice, as their parents hurried them away.

The 10 year old sales assistant calmly took my wheel from me and deftly fitted a new inner tube in 5 minutes.

“Why can’t I do that?” I asked him.

He tapped his nose and stroked his ‘yet to start shaving’ chin.

“Experience,” he nodded, sagely.

I bought another inner tube, just in case the bike shop owner was lying about the tyres.

Of course, this would never happen when out running. If I, or my weekend running partner Noel, were to run a 10 mile circuit, we wouldn’t pull up suddenly, saying, “Hang on! My trainers got a flat!” followed by a search around in a little bag for some patches, French chalk, rubber glue and a piece of sandpaper.

I haven’t even mentioned gears, brake cables or a chain break, which would be much more serious. I can’t think of a similarity when it comes to running, unless it’s:

“Hang on, Noel! My testicles have come loose! Have you got a spanner?”

This would be followed by half an hour of fiddling around with my undercarriage with the inevitable huffing and puffing and blackened hands from all the oil. Not that my privates are lubricated in that way.

Mind you, there are times when my knee goes twang, but if I let it rest for a few weeks, it gets better. If I just put my bike in the garage, it wouldn’t fix its own testicles. I mean chain.

Runner, with properly tightened nuts.

Runner, with properly tightened nuts.

So, what’s the verdict?

Running keeps me fit and thin(ner). Cycling is good fun.

They both have their advantages. Either way, I get to wear lycra, the choice of material for middle aged men training for a mid-life crisis.

 

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