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Paris pleasures

21 Oct
No matter how many times we visit, I get a little thrill to be in Paris. After arriving by train at the fabulous Gare de Lyon, our Algerian-born-married-to-the-mob-Italian-speaking taxi driver whisked us to our pied a terre near the Opéra Garnier and soon we were looking over the rooftops of the city.
Paris was quite the change of pace after a week in Pesaro and Bra. We hit Avenue de l’Opéra on Saturday afternoon at high shopping time. Mamma mia! I was feeling a bit panicky as the crowds swarmed left and right! No one seemed to walk to one side or the other and enormous families took up the whole sidewalk. Kind of reminded me of Roma, and not in a good way!

Every Paris album needs a gratuitous Eiffel Tower shot.

We eventually found our pace, managing to weave creatively, clinging to one another and refusing to be separated. We found the nearby Monoprix (no thanks to the apartment rental agency which gave us the wrong address) for groceries and headed back “home” as Ric, who had been nursing a cold for a couple of days, was feeling the full fury and needed some chicken soup and downtime.
Prepared chicken soup was something we had trouble finding in Italy. Not so in Paris! Lovely chicken broth with vermicelli (not just “noodles”), a fresh baguette, some nice white wine, and early-to-bed.
So we took it easy in Paris. The weather was not bad. Only rarely sunny but, as we like to say, at least it wasn’t raining. Overcast is fine as long as I do not have to deploy an umbrella while touring. We managed to explore some places we had not been in our prior visits, take some long walks through familiar neighborhoods, and have some fine culinary experiences as well.
Below, a selection of pictures from our stroll around The Marais on a nice sunny day.
Ric thought I was crazy to suggest a tour of Père Lachaise Cemetery, but after a two-hour wander we were both happy we’d gone. Crowds were light early on a fall Sunday, and by the time other tourists and Sunday gravesite visitors appeared, we were leaving. So many famous writers, musicians, philosophers, singers, artists, statesmen, and military figures are interred here! Not all are figures from bygone times. One of the artists from “Charlie Hebdo” that was murdered in the attacks of 2015 is in Père Lachaise. Memorials honor war dead and there are several moving monuments to the Holocaust.
Another less-known site is the Jacquemart-André Museum. I have had this in my sights for a few visits and finally found time to go. What a fabulous place! While quite popular with French visitors, we heard no English this day.  This is a private museum created in the mansion of Édouard André (1833–1894) and Nélie Jacquemart (1841–1912) to display the art they collected during their lives. And what a collection it is! They apparently had unlimited funds, no kids (which helps), and could not stop collecting. The reception rooms and private quarters alike are from another era and a lifestyle we only see in films. There are masterpieces by Donatello, Luca Della Robbia, Botticelli, Signorelli, Perugino, and more. Italy seems to have been their favorite country-of-origin.
Part of the mansion was used in the 1958 film “Gigi.”
An unexpected bonus was a special exhibit, “The Hansen’s Secret Garden” the private collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art collected in just two years (1916-1918) by a Danish couple, Wilhelm and Henny Hansen. Renoir, Matisse, Degas, Gauguin, Monet and more. We were dumbfounded to trip across this and had the privilege of up-close viewing in a very intimate setting. The exhibition is supposed to go to other major museums around the world, although only Ottawa is singled out on the website. If it comes to a city near you, go.
Food in Paris is very important, and food experiences are very important to the Bartons. We were, however, a bit tired of restaurants after a week without a kitchen. The chicken soup night was a relief and we also decided to make a nice French ratatouille in honor of our visit to the capital. This became the prime component of a few relaxed dinners at “home.” There were some excellent culinary experiences, too.

Moules alla Meuniere at Au Trappiste. The waiter will recommend a beer to pair. Frites on the side, of course.

I was in a mood for moules et frites. We tracked them down at two decidedly different venues: Au Trappiste, a Belgian beer emporium that also served great mussels, and Leon de Bruxelles, a mussels-specialty chain that also had some decent Belgian beer. I usually like my mussels sautéed in wine ala Meuniere, but after trying Leon’s Provençale style as well as au Roquefort, I need to expand my repertory at home. My cravings were well-satisfied. Leon is definitely on our list for the (inevitable) next trip to Paris.
We splurged on one dinner/tour, Bustronome. Unfortunately. Ric was still not feeling well and could barely taste the food. Since it was pre-paid he bravely went along. I found the food quality and creativity excellent although the wines were nothing special. We were served a 6-course meal and although the fish wasn’t one of my favorites, everything was done nicely, very fresh, very beautiful. Portions were appropriate to a 6-course meal so we didn’t quite waddle away.
The nighttime tour of Paris was terrific. We drove slowly through the streets on the double-decker bus passing almost every landmark you could name: Place du Concorde, the Louvre, Opéra Garnier, Musée D’Orsay, Invalides, La Tour Eiffel, and more. The bus has a panoramic glass roof and since all diners are on the second level, everyone had a great view. (The kitchen is on the bottom level.)
A couple of years ago we enjoyed a phenomenal meal at Les Papilles, where you eat what they are cooking. At least at dinner, that is the case: no choices, one set four-course menu. We went for lunch this trip and at lunch there are a few bistro meal choices. We aren’t fools. We ordered the chef’s recommended entrée et plat. This day it was a delicate cauliflower soup served with bits of bacon and cauliflower with a dollop of crème fraiche followed by a delectable porc en cassoulet. How they do it out of a kitchen the size of our master bathroom, I do not know. The owner, Bertrand Bluy, is no slouch in the selection of wines and brought us a lovely carafe that is far beyond what most would offer as house wine, well-matched to the day’s menu. Luckily Ric was feeling much better and able to taste and enjoy the food. 
We love going to the market wherever we are traveling and we shopped at Monoprix on Avenue de l’Opéra several times.The first time we checked out it was with a young man who was very engaging with the customers that went before us. Nice to us, but with a language barrier no real kibitzing. The next time we went to his station, as usual he was visiting with people then turned to ring up our items. He indicated to me that some dark chocolate we had would not scan. (I can understand enough French in situ.) Bummer. He set the chocolate aside and rang up the rest of the order. I turned to tell Ric the chocolate would not scan and could see he was irritated. (We like a square of dark chocolate after dinner.) Then the cashier laughed and handed me the item in question. “Joking,” he said. I guess we were accepted as regulars at that point. The Opéra Market was also a find, just around the corner form our flat, with an assortment of products that puts 7-Eleven to shame in a space not much larger than some walk-in closets.
Of course even Paris can have bad food. You can read about a terrible pizza experience which I post soon over at Our Weekly Pizza. (Hint: Dominoes would have been better.)
So we bid adieu to Paris, her fine moules, amusing grocery clerks, and bad pizza. The Eurostar whisked us to London from where I will resume our story when I have time. À bientôt!
And if you haven’t seen enough, here are a few more photos from lovely Paris. 
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Off the beaten – Piemonte

12 Oct
Leaving Le Marche and moving across the country, we took three trains to reach Bra in the Piemonte. No, it is not named for a feminine underthing. That word in Italian is reggiseno. There was, however, a bra thief that struck there.

Kitty has a view…of trains. Tromp l’oeil in Bra.

Many people have heard of Asti and Alba, but Bra is a smaller town with less than 30,000 people, famous as being the place the Slow Food movement started. For such a tiny place it had amazing restaurants. Two out of our three dinners there were truly stellar.
Boccondivino was the first restaurant to be opened by the Slow Food Movement in the 1980s. We found the food to be inspired without being pretentious, and prices unbelievable for the quality. It is Michelin-listed; no stars, but still! Even excellent Piemontese wine was available by the glass for €3-5 per glass. Our total bill was only €70 including a shared antipasto (a roasted yellow pepper wrapped around tuna pate), two secondi (rabbit for Ric that was perhaps the most beautifully prepared rabbit we’ve ever seen, and roasted guinea fowl for me), a shared dessert, four glasses of wine, a grappa, and caffè. We so appreciated the impeccable-but-not-stuffy service and fair pricing to go along with memorable food. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment, I did not even take any food photos. That is a good thing.
We so enjoyed Boccondivino that we wanted to go back on our third evening. But I did not call until lunchtime Friday and they were completely booked. I sought out something completely different: a seafood restaurant in land-locked Piemonte. Ristorante La Bula serves only seafood and the reviews were terrific so we reserved a table. It may be landlocked, but this part of the region is quite close to Liguria where seafood is a religion.
I think I woke up the owner when I called to make the reservation in the mid-afternoon and we were the first to arrive half-an-hour after they opened. They did not look like they expected a big crowd. It is a lovely space, tucked back under the portico of a very old building, but modern and chic.
I am happy to say a few more dinners arrived and we had an amazing dinner! It was the best seafood dinner we have had since leaving Roma. We started with calamari alla griglia con crema di ceci (grilled calamari with creamed chickpeas, much like a soft hummus), then shared tagliatelle con ragu di polpo (pasta with octopus ragu). Ric had the fried Mediterranean goodness of fritto misto, while I enjoyed the branzino alla griglia con verdure (sea bass with vegetables). The wine list included many regional wines, but we snuck across the border to Liguria for one of our favorites, Vermentino. A lovely grappa capped off the dinner. I might not have reason to return to Bra, but if we are ever within 50 miles, I would detour to eat here.
Boccondivino night 1, La Bula night 3. Where did we eat on night 2 in this food capital? It was not so much where as when: we ate in the 1950s. Our B&B recommended Badellino and on the strength of that recommendation (after all, he also recommended Boccondivino) we made a reservation. We were first to arrive, but the restaurant quickly filled, mostly with locals, it seemed. The menu was uninspired, the presentation and preparation even less so. There was an antipasto cart where for €13.00 per person the woman in charge of the dining room would load a plate for you with beef tartar, the local bra sausage served raw, insalata russie (I abhor insalata russie!), guinea fowl salad (no doubt made from last night’s leftovers), and a few other rather unsavory looking items that had been sitting at room temperature. Can you say ptomaine? As a primo we chose a pasta which was pretty good, made from the local sausage that was mercifully cooked. My main course was roast beef Barolo, which was, in fact, a tender piece of beef in a Barolo sauce, but it was so lonely on the plate, just a slab slathered in the gravy, no side dish, no color, not even a sprig of parsley. It looked like something served in a church basement in the Midwest when I was growing up. Neither of the servers spoke any English, which was odd in a destination that attracts an international wine crowd, and the décor of this 100-year-old establishment might last have been spruced up in 1959. We paid the same here as we did at Boccondivino! At least they had grappa and the wine was a good value.
So what did we do besides eat? This is an amazing wine region after all. We took two daytrips: Alba and Cuneo.
We enjoyed traveling some by Regionale, the not-so-fast workaday trains of the Trenitalia system. Trains that are taken more by Italians commuting to work or to shop, and by students from middle school through University. There is a lot of commuting between cities like Torino and Bra and Bra and Alba. Every day we encountered swarms of students: out in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. 
We also saw a wide variety of agricultural landscapes, quite different from other regions of Italy. Corn fields dominated where we expected grapes, and small vineyards clung to hillsides. There were more hazelnut (filbert ) trees than in the Willamette Valley! In Alba, vacuum-packed bags of dried and roasted nocciole (hazelnuts) were in nearly every shop and a hazelnut torta was a featured dessert.
Bra is not really in the hills where they produce wine. It is rather on the edge, whereas Alba is right in the Langhe. In Alba, we found an immensely attractive town, very focused on the upcoming La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). We are not truffle fans (you either are a fan, or are not, IMO) so I am glad we missed those crowds. We also found that Alba is the home of Ric’s favorite grappa, Sibona. We dithered for about five minutes before deciding to ship a winter supply home. You cannot buy this stuff in the U.S. 
In a small world moment, the little cafe we chose for lunch had a slight Oregon connection: the owner’s sister-in-law is in the wine business and knows Ponzi.
Now a departure for a few fashion photos. As anywhere in Italy, style is important and even in these little towns of rural Piemonte there were some interesting trends that caught my eye. 
We also ventured to Cuneo, capital of the province that encompasses Alba and Bra. This is an amazingly beautiful city, very busy and a delight to wander. There are no tourists, it seems. True, no big “sights” or “sites” but that is what off-the-beaten-path is about: Seeing places that do not attract the hordes. We only had a few hours, but could easily have stayed a few days. It is nestled up against the Maritime Alps. I would love to see it in winter when the peaks are snowy.

 

Off the beaten – Le Marche

11 Oct
We decided to veer away from our original plan of going to Roma. As our son said, “You lived there almost five years! Why are you going back already?” On reflection, we realized we were mostly going there to eat at our favorite places, and to see our friend Eleonora. Sorry Ele, but Derek made sense: we decided to go to one region we’d never visited — Le Marche — and to Piemonte, where we have only visited Torino. Rome will have to wait.

The view from our room. The beach was never any busier than this.

For Le Marche it is difficult to pick one base. It is a region with such geographic diversity that it is time-consuming to get around only by train and bus. With a thought to visiting Urbino (famous Renaissance city) and Ravenna (for the Byzantine mosaics I have been wanting to see for years) I booked us into a very nice hotel in Pesaro (say it PAYZ-a-row).
Pesaro is an Italian beach town which in July or August would be swarming with bronzed bodies. In late September many hotels were boarded up for the season and the beach was deserted. No doubt the reasonable price for our room in the five-star Hotel Excelsior was due to the season. While in Oregon people still swarm to the coast in the fall, in Italy the season is over, no matter how nice the weather.
Offseason made for easy, if long, day trips to Urbino and Ravenna, with quiet walks and dining in Pesaro in the evening. Then there was the up-close view of the Adriatic from our balcony.
We really enjoyed walking around Ravenna and ogling the magnificent mosaics. Having dabbled in mosaics myself, I am in awe of the work done centuries ago. We had perfect weather and lucked into a fine lunch at Il Paiolo. Since Ravenna is in Emilia-Romagna, home of the piadina, we were able to get piadine made by people who really know what they are doing. It may seem simple, but a great piadina is not common. Mediocre ones are.
Urbino was interesting but it is a city of hardscape without much green to relieve it. We toured the Palazzo Ducale and were suitably impressed, but overall, we prefer quainter, less severe towns and more drama in our scenery. The Le Marche landscape surrounding it is lush and begs exploration with a car. It was a long bus trip made interesting by the other passengers and the little rural towns we passed through showing a slice of small-town Italian life.

These people are buying fish. I was amused by the view. The awning is down because the kiosk faces the morning sun. Wouldn’t you think they’d orient the kiosk the other way?

We were less-than-thrilled with seafood in Pesaro. I expected better from an Adriatic town. It wasn’t that the product was poor: it was in fact very fresh. But the preparation was uninspired. Simple grilling would have been best. There was often too much breading and a propensity to fry. With little seasoning, everything tasted the same. Even vegetable options were limited to potatoes and the ever-present insalata verde. Italians do not do great salads, which is a shame given the amazing ingredients available. Prices were not bad, but for similar prices in Lincoln City, we eat far better seafood. And I have had far better in Roma.

Pesaro is a working port and fresh fish is available on the docks.

After trying two seafood restaurants that were right on the beach (the scenery surpassed the food), we turned our attention to a little osteria in the centro storico, Osteria Pasqualon. We were warmly welcomed and served a simple but excellent meal of vitello alla limone, patatine fritte, erbe di campagnolo, melanzane parmigiana, and spiedini misti. (Veal scaloppini, French fries, sautéed field greens, eggplant parmesan, and mixed grilled kabob.) No fish. The price for all of this, with wine, was about €37.00. And that is another wonder of getting off the beaten path: you can find amazing food in Italy at an unbelievable price.
Pesaro was relaxing after Venezia – maybe too much for some people who feel they have to fill every day to the brim. We had had four busy weeks since we left home and more to come. We saw some places from this base that I am happy we got to see. And it was a great opportunity to practice my Italian as outside of the Hotel Excelsior the available English was limited. We liked having a base and not having to spend a series of one-and-two night stays to see some small towns.
P.S. – We are in Paris now. I am trying to catch up with blogging, but we are rather busy enjoying ourselves. Part II about Piemonte coming up soon!

 

Assisi is more than San Francesco

6 Oct
St. Francis of Assisi naturally springs to mind, and surely we have the Saint to thank for the beauty of this town. Without him, who knows? But there is more to Assisi than a religious pilgrimage.
We visited Assisi on a day trip from Spello in 2011 and intended to make it back while we lived in Roma. Never happened. Finally, we included a return to this, Italy’s “Green Heart” and our timing was excellent: warmish fall weather and sun prevailed.

Classic Assisi shot: the Basilica of San Francesco. Such a humble man and such a grand edifice.

Rebecca Winke was my muse for our first trip to Umbria in December of 2011, although she did not know it. On this trip, I was pleased to finally meet her and we were able to stay in one of her traditional apartments right in the center of Assisi, an ideal location.

Typical Assisi street: steep!

Assisi is a good city for strengthening your thighs and we walked it all. Steep alleys, hidden staircases, and a few broad streets lead from one historic wonder to the next. There is the Basilica, of course, and more churches than I could count, but also the eremo (hermitage) of San Francesco above Assisi where his followers gathered. There is a lovely bosco (woods) now run by F.A.I.  (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) featuring hiking paths.  I was pleased to stumble upon the little-known, little-visited Museo del Memoria dedicated to the Assisi Underground: priests, nuns and lay people who saved many Jews during WWII. I had read the book several years ago but the museum is only about five years old. Moving to see this remembrance.

Now a church, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, these columns remain from a 1st century BC temple dedicated to Minerva.

Assisi is also a decent base for exploring Umbria. Ric and I only managed one day trip this time, to Spello, but Perugia, Spoleto, and others are possible by public transportation, and many more interesting Umbrian towns are within a short drive if one has a car. There is, of course, wine, as Umbria is home to the great Sagrantino di Montefalco.
Regarding that day trip to Spello. you can read about it over at Project Easy Hiker. We took a great, but not-so-easy hike. We also purchased some fantastic olive oil and shipped it back to Oregon.
We found “our bar” the first morning, a place the locals go, and we patronized it each day becoming temporary regulars. There are excellent restaurants: Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba, Trattoria Pallotto, and Osteria degli Umbri were so good we would have repeated had we been staying longer. We also enjoyed shopping in the tiny alimentari for food to prepare in our apartment.

Trompe l’oeil cat, Assisi.

We were fortunate to have Taxi Bruno (#23) pick us up one morning when we wanted to go to the eremo, which is above Assisi. Did we want him to wait for us? No, I said (Bruno only speaks Italian by the way), we will come back on foot. Va bene. On the way up, I started to worry. The road was steep, somewhat busy with traffic, and there was no shoulder. So I asked Bruno how we would walk down. The road or the path of San Francesco (Via Francigena) were the only choices, and the latter is rugged, he said. Talking amongst ourselves, we decided perhaps, if he could, we’d have Bruno wait for us. He was delighted to and gave me a very full account of how to visit the eremo and handed us an English-language guidebook to use. So we had a visit to this special little spot in the woods and Taxi Bruno took us back to Assisi. So happy we sprang for his services. Lucky us, on our last morning Bruno also showed up at the crack of dawn when we needed to go to the station on departure. We
Who would have thought going to Mailboxes, Etc., would be a memorable event? We needed to ship home olive oil and a few other things we had purchased and did not want to cart all over Europe for another month. Seems like a mundane activity, right? Not in Italy!

Lavender shop, Assisi.

We arrived about 11:30 to find the store locked and two dogs tied up inside, one of which was barking furiously. Since the store was supposed to open at 11:00 and we had traveled there by bus with these packages, we were a little miffed. But this is Italy and times can be approximate. I stuck my head into the bar next door and a group having coffee assured me the MBE guy would be back. Probably just making a delivery. One of the guys very kindly stopped after he had his coffee and called the owner to see: sure enough, he was on his way.  (I had tried to call but the number on the door was disconnected. If we had not lived in Italy so long I might have found this odd, but it did not seem all that strange to us.)

Friendly cats all over town came out to greet us.

So Mr. MBE shows up, unlocks the door, offers apologies, and introduces us to Arturo, one of the dogs, who is on a leash tied to the counter. Arturo seems docile now that we have been let in and anxious to make our acquaintance. I have never met a dog I did not like, and they like me; except Arturo. But for the leash restraining him, he would have taken my face off! I backed out of reach just in time! And the owner did not seem to find this so odd. Ahhh, Italy. I’ll bet if I met Arturo in a restaurant we’d have been fine.
I kept my distance from Arturo, although Ric did not seem to have a problem. The guys at MBE took good care of us and even made us a nice espresso.

Everyone seemed to have beautiful flowers around their entryways.

My only regret about our stay is that we did not get out into the Umbrian countryside more. Without a car it is difficult to do. It is, I think, a little harder to navigate on public transportation than Toscana. But that makes it all the more charming.
Here are a few shots from our hike in the Bosco di San Francesco.

 

L’Arte di Venezia

29 Sep
29 September 2017.
Art museums are not high on my list these days. We’ve seen so many. I could live a long time without ever seeing another Egyptian sarcophagus and contemporary art usually leaves me laughing and perplexed, although we have viewed the magnificent Peggy Guggenheim Collection three times. E basta.

Biennale venue, Giardino.

But when you wander into Venezia in the middle of the Biennale, it only seems fitting to take in the event. In this, our tenth trip to La Serenissima, we unintentionally coincided with a Biennale year. So we went. Luckily we got the senior discount.
The venue at Giardino is lovely. I had no idea there were permanent pavilions. In many cases, the building eclipsed the art. Russia’s site and exhibit were very “1984.” That was our favorite of the paid-for venues.
There were some charming pieces around the city that were for public enjoyment. We did not get to hunt down all of them but saw several we liked.

A small portion of Russia’s monochromatic installation.

Korea’s pavilion. The exterior was the best part.

Super-sized and shiny, this rhino contemplates Venezia across the Laguna.

Coinciding with the Biennale was an exhibit at the contemporary museums Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, a first-ever event where one show completely filled both venues: “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” by Damian Hirst. Three of Hirst’s pieces were visible in Venezia outside of the museums and they were crazy, huge, classical-looking works of art reminiscent of much we have seen throughout Italy. That drew us in. How could this be contemporary art?

One of Hirst’s classical pieces on public display.

It is a big joke. Hirst created a fantasy about a treasure trove of items collected by a freed slave, Cif Amotan II (an anagram*) These are wonderfully displayed, many in a before-and-after manner: encrusted with sea life, barnacles, etc., then polished and gleaming after restoration. The Guardian called it “art for a post-truth world.” Click on any photo for a better view and caption.
Hirst went so far as to stage elaborate underwater photography of the salvage operation of some pieces. All of the curation supported the myth in detail. Only when one read the fine print about the materials used was the gag given away: granite, marble, resin, MDF, gold, silver….
We thought it was brilliant, although many critics were appalled. Hirst has the last laugh as people are pouring in to see it and reportedly many pieces have sold. I hope so: he spent £50 million of his own money and ten years putting the show together. When you are wildly successful, I guess you can take risks.

We stopped on Mazzorbo for lunch at Alla Maddalena. A far cry from Venezia proper.

I have to mention a lovely experience we had away from the crazy crowds. This is one of the reasons people should stay longer in Venezia: to get away from San Marco and enjoy the islands where the Venetian Republic was born.

A short vaporetto ride from Venezia is peaceful Mazzorbo, incorporating a wine resort, Venissa. Might have to contemplate staying here some time.

We often visit the laguna islands, but this time we went to Mazzorbo, specifically for a quiet lunch on a perfect day. While most people head to Burano, we got off one stop early on quiet Mazzorbo. The terrace at Alla Maddalena was full, mostly with people arriving by water taxi. And they were having the taxi wait while they dined! We only heard one other table speaking English. Seemed to be lots of Italians in the know about this place. Prices are reasonable and it was far more charming than the places we usually eat on Burano. No reservation? Plan on eating inside which is where the walk-ins were escorted.

My delightful lunch at Alla Maddalena, a mixed seafood grill. Ric had lovely grilled eel.

It was a bit of art-focused trip, more so than usual for us. Punctuated by terrific meals and of course lots of walking in one of the world’s greatest cities for wearing off pasta.

Joseph Klibansky bronze turtles entitled “Baby we Made it.”

Newest shopping opportunity in Venezia, T Fondaco dei Tedeschi in a 16th-century building. Can you say high end?

Sunrise on the Grand Canal.

*I am a fiction
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