Friday, 25 November 2016

Festa Major

Visca!
Matt's back in Barcelona!
The beautiful cathedral.
The time I'd spent in Romania was great. I was able to get back into teaching and enjoy it after a long break away, as well as get a chance to do a bit of travelling in a new and interesting country and get some lovely photos in. I know that I am truly at my happiest when travelling - even though I don't think I could be constantly travelling, as I love having my real friends close and also have a place to rest for a while, it fills me with purpose, energy and joy. I find that if I don't get away from the day-to-day to hike, or even just take a few photos, I get agitated and feel 'trapped.' Since coming back to Spain this year, people here are always asking me "why are you living here when you're from Australia?" For me the answer is simple: I love it here. I then have to give them the long answer, as people from here don't really know what they have - a common syndrome no matter where you come from. Weather plays a big part in happiness I believe, and so when I was in the UK and people asked why I was here instead of Australia, it wasn't for the weather, and it wasn't to live - it was a short stint for travelling and experiences. Here in Spain, and Catalunya, the weather is typically Southern European, or Mediterranean, so cold in Winter and very warm in Summer. But the Winter is not bitterly cold like Central Europe, nor is it wet and horrible like the UK, so it's fun to rug up, put your jacket and scarf on, duck into the next bar and un-layer and have a nice (and cheap!) drink with your mates. Summer is long and warm, and there is plenty to do around here - moutains and coast line is what makes up most of the area outside Barcelona. I feel at home here, but also I feel as if I'm travelling - the best combination.

Happy Festa Major!
Row, row, row your Paella!
Correfocs in Cardedeu.

I was back in Barcelona, but summer was not over yet. In fact, it was only really kicking off. During the month of August there are festivals everywhere here, from villages to cities, that last for a week and celebrate the traditions and culture from the area. This time of year is known as Festa Major, and it's my favourite time of year. Cardedeu, the village where I used to live, was my first stop. Although considered a 'village,' there are about 15,000 people living there and in the small residential suburbs around, and it holds many cultural events, Festa Major being a great party here. Of course, being such a small place, I pretty much know everyone too! During the day there are activities for kids and parents, things like the 'Paella Popular,' or the Popular Paella, which is a huge dish, big enought to feed everyone in town! The paella dish they use is about 4m in diametre, ingredients are thrown in by the box-load (prawns, peas, tomatoes), rice by the truck load, and all stirred nicely using boat oars. Els gegants (Giants) are also a tradition here - people get under and carry a huge 'giant'on their shoulders, no easy feat as this things way a ton! They dance to music in the village, Catalan grallas and drums making their distinctive sound. 


The crazy Correfocs in Cardedeu - the whole village gets in there!
The Verro hunted by the Diables.
The Diables in Cardedeu.
As the sun sets, the 'Diables' come out to cause havoc. People dressed up and devils and demons gather in the main square under the church, all wearing red and black outfits with hoods, holding pikes with firecrackers on the end. This is my favourite part of the festivities - these 'devils' dancing and prance around the small streets of the village, fireworks going off and spraying sparks everywhere, the townspeople following them, dancing along the way. The first time I saw this, and still now sometimes, I couldn't help but think that this would be completely illegal in Australia, the UK and the US. Teenagers with firecrackers on sharp sticks, explosions going off in 3m wide streets, and kids dancing amoungs all this chaos - yet there are very few (I've never seen or heard of one), if any, injuries. Relax and go with it! In Cardedeu, after this 'Correfocs,' or 'Running of the fire,' they have a 'Correaigua' where the local fire brigade stand on scaffolding and spray everyone down with big hoses. Good fun for the kids and sometimes even the adults get wet! After all this is when the 'party' starts, drinks get served, more music comes on and later bands - Cardedeu actually gets very busy, locals who now live in Barcelona come here just for this day. It's a great time and made me miss this place - it will always have a special place in my heart. Visca Cardedeu! The next day is, of course, another story - one spent with friends or family, eating and relaxing, everything done very slowly, until you have a siesta and get ready to go out again of course!


The Verro's last moments before the hunters kill him.
Festa Major in Gracia, Barcelona.
The Correfocs in Gracia, Barcelona.
Barcelona is also a great place to come and witness the festival, although there are more people and a lot of them are tourists too. The Festa de Gracia is the big event here, with their own Correfocs and fireworks, but they also have other things too. Els Carrers, or 'The Streets,' is something that has been a tradition in the suburb of Gracia in Barcelona for many, many  years. A street chooses a theme and all the neighbours get out and decorate it as much as possible. The best wins a prize, but before the winner is announced, you can walk through these streets and experience them for yourself. This year there were quite a few good ones, including a Jules Verne theme, with the squid from "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" making a big appearance, as well as a few balloons and telescopes. There was also a pirate theme, a big favourite with everyone. Sadly, I've been told that this tradition is dying out a little - it's a lot of work over months, and not nearly as exciting as the other things going on at the time - there is no shortage of volunteers for the Diables or Castells (Human Towers). The fireworks here in Barcelona were slightly bigger than in Cardedeu, with more people involved to, and were also very excited - I don't think I could get bored of it. I watched the parade in the main street of Gracia, snapping some nice pics before ducking back into the crowds, dodging the sparks from the huge animals with firecrackers pegged to their tusks, horns and claws. Although it's not really dangerous, you wear sunglasses and you're fine, but when a spark lands on your shirt and burns through, it really stings! After this, it was time to wander around and enjoy the rest of the festival, sucking back street beers while doing so. I love this city!


Don't get too close!!
The Pastorets doing their stick banging dance.
Bastoners.

Sitges, a lovely little town on the Costa Brava, also has a great Festa Major. The town is known for it's independent Film Festival as well as it's gay community. It's a great place to hang out at the beach, eat and drink, and just enjoy the Mediterranean lifestyle. Filled with tourists at any time, it was more so now, but it was worth it. The Festa Major here showcases things you don't see anywhere else, such as traditional dancing and costumes from the Tarragona Region of Catalunya. One of these events is the "Pastorets," or little shepherds, and I enjoyed it very much - basically there are a group of about 12 people, usually half boys and half girls, they stand facing each other and do a dance, all the while banging a large 'shepherd's staff.' It's incredible to watch and wonder they don't hit each other or even themselves with these things! They also recite some poetry, usually a satire on politics, and do a little whip cracking as well. Bastonets are also very popular and traditional here - these people bang thick wooden sticks together, each person having two each, dancing at the same time, working with the music and singing to perform an intricate dance, all while grinning from ear to ear. Something else that I'd never seen before was the "Ball de Cercolets." This is from Valencia as well as the South of Catalonia (Penedes and Tarragona), and the dancers are all dressed in white with bells and ribbons, and they dance with ribbons tied to a large pole. As they dance and sing, they spin around in circles, slowly but surely tying the ribbon around the pole. The dance was traditionally done around harvest time, in September or October, and even dates back to Greek and Roman Pagan traditions dedicated to the Goddess of Flora. To top the day off, there was a fireworks show that could have given Sydney a (small) run for it's money!


A proud man in the Ball de Cercolets.
Pure teamwork!
The Pinya and tower going up.
Another of my favourite things here in Cataluya is the Castells, or Human Towers. In Spain they run from bulls down narrow medieval streets or drug them and then stick pins and swords into them until they collapse - here it is more about teamwork and what you can achieve when you work together. It's also not torturing and killing animals. First documented in the 18th Century, the first Castell being in Tarragona (a wonderful city full of Roman ruins), spreading to nearby area like Vilafranca del Penedes (also famous for it's cava), and in the last 50 years has become very popular in the rest of Catlaunya. The basics of it are - build the tallest and most difficult tower. There are points and different 'stratgies' for the towers, and they work out their 'game play' before each build. I don't understand all the complications, but the preparations are wonderful to watch - teams of people helping each other winding the black faixa sash tightly around their waists, tying up hair and other small details. I also love watching the tower go up - a solid base (called a 'pinya' or 'pineapple') of big strong guys right in the centre, loads of others pushing in for support, and the smaller and lighter 'players' climb up the others, the smallest is a child of around 5 years old who goes right to the top and raises her hand to signal it's done - then they slide right back down and it's done! They climb up with music, people playing drums and grallas, which helps them time the climb. They way back down is probably the most dangerous - I have seen a few falls, but nothing serious. The kid at the top wear helmets and if the tower collapses, it usually falls straight down, collapsing onto the people below by levels, soaking up the shock of a 20m fall. Every year this is a big competition in Tarragona that one day I hope to see live! On November 16, 2010, castells were declared by UNESCO to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Get in close and don't let the team down.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Sibiu and Sighișoara

Nice backdrop for a coffee.
Colourful trains.
Sunset in Sibiu.
I arrived in Sibiu in the afternoon, getting to my hostel around sunset time. I'd pre-booked just the one night, even though I'd planned to be here for about 3 days - you're never sure if the hostel is worth staying or not and better to be safe than sorry. I checked in, finding the place no problem - it was right on the main square of the city. Although it was a weeknight, the square was buzzing - food and drink, music, people everywhere, both locals and tourists, enjoying this beautiful medieval city in Summer. Back in the 14th Century Sibiu was an important ethnic German trade hub, there were universities, ministers, intellectuals politicians and by the 19th Century was the most important city in the Translyvanian region, the first Romanian bank opening it's doors here and also became a very important seat for the Orthodox Church. Even after WWI, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, most of the people living here were of German descent, but after the Second World War most fled back to Germany and Austria. Although most Germans left the city, 2,000 stayed and one of them even is now the current President of Romania. Sibiu is one of the most important cultural centres of Romania and was designated the European Capital of Culture for the year 2007, along with the city of Luxembourg. The old city of Sibiu was ranked as "Europe's 8th-most idyllic place to live" by Forbes in 2008 - and it is gorgeous!

Evening time in the main sqaure.
The Orthodox Church in Sibiu.
3 friends chilling in the square.
My night's sleep however, was not. I was tired from the walking that I'd done during the day, carrying all my bags to and from the train stations, then walking around the city, so I crashed at about 11pm after a few (supermarket) beers in the square. Sleep came easily but not long after I had dropped off one guy in the dorm started snoring, but snoring like I'd never heard before. If there were World Championships for this kind of thing, he'd be the Usain Bolt, Mohammed Ali or even the Michael Phelps of snoring. Other people in the dorm tried to make him stop, including me, by throwing things at him, going over and talking to him, rolling him over and even yelling at him - you would have had more luck trying to stop a Tokyo Shinkansen by putting your foot on the rail. Nothing else to do but put up with it and move out and find a new hostel before check-out time. That's what I did and I found a great little place, my bottom bunk was next to a window with a view of the 15th Century Lutheran Cathedral in the centre of the city. The room also had 5 girls in it so there was no snoring at all. Besides, when girls snore a little, it's cute right? Feeling tired from now sleep but excited about being here, I dropped my stuff off and headed out. Bakeries, restaurants and bars, small stores selling beautiful things - this city has it all - as well as looking like something out of a fairy tale.


Orthodox churches are far more beautiful than their Catholic counterparts.

View from the tower.
Contemplating life...
Apart from walking the streets and seeing the beauty of Sibiu from the ground, finding secret buildings and small churches as well as admiring the architecture up close, a great thing to do is climb the tallest tower of the Lutheran Cathedral. This tallest church stands out for a few reasons - firstly because it's the tallest thing in town, also smack back in the centre, but the thing that struck me was that it isn't orthodox and thus looks slightly out of place here. Tall pointy towers are what normal European churches have, but here in Romania most have the typical round shape of Orthodox churches, which also don't follow the 't' or 'cross' shape with the long nave, transepts sticking out the sides and a chancel and apse at the back. A few Lei to get in and walk around is worth it - tall arches inside, letting in all the light, polished wooden decorations and of course the the huge church organ, which is from the 17th Century and is also the largest in South East Europe. Climbing the stairs up the tower is a few extra Lei but, again, worth it. The climb is tough - very steep and narrow - and not recommended for the faint of heart or hearts prone to attacks either. Reaching the top and looking out onto the city is spectacular and a must to do in the city - you can see for miles and miles, the old city and the new, people and cars look like little ants from this distance and you could spend at least 10 minutes up there taking in the panoramic view. Another thing to do in the city, apart from eating and drink (which is also highly rec commended!) is to walk around the city walls which encircle the old city.

The view of Sibiu from the Lutheran Church tower.
Inside the Orthodox Church.
City wall and tower.

While in Sibiu, I was told about a cool little town not far away called Sighișoara, that everyone goes to. Curious, I checked it out - it's supposed to be the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, AKA Dracula. Although I don't fall prey to tourist traps, I saw some photos of the place and decided it would be worth it for some snaps at least. Getting there and back wasn't easy though - the trains in this country aren't the most reliable or frequent. I got on the train but wasn't able to go directly, so I had to jump off and wait for another train - this was a close call too as I only had 10 minutes before the next one and my train was late in leaving. It was also raining, so my mood wasn't great. In the end the other train was also late so there was no problem - nobody else seems bothered, maybe this happens all the time. 

A secret courtyard in Sibiu.
A little restaurant in Sighișoara.
Ah the churches!
The rain was on and off the whole day, but it wasn't really a problem - the local gypsies were by far more of a hassle. The myth that gypsies are Romanians isn't true - although sometimes called Romani, travelling people, and even Pikies in the UK, they originally come from Northern India a thousand years or so ago, and are now dispersed all around Europe and even North and South America - The States have 1 million people of Romani heritage, Brazil with around 800,000 and in Europe Spain and Romania have the most, the former having up to 1.5 million and the later up to 2.5 million. The local gypsies here stank, begged aggressively, their kids also begged and followed you, some having grubby tracksuits on and others pretty much naked - I hate to say it, but they are filthy people who don't integrate into society, instead acting like a flea on a dog's back, doing nobody any good, no really even themselves. Please don't mistake the friendly and kind-hearted Romanians with these sad people.


It's all about the souvenirs here in Sighișoara unfortunately.
The church in Sighișoara.
A tower on the city walls.
Sighișoara has a population of just under 30,000, which makes it a large town but nothing really compared to the likes of Sibiu or Brasov. Settled int he 12th Century by German craftsmen and merchants, Sighișoara was an important trading spot in Europe for centuries. The most notable resident here was Vlad II, sometimes called Vlad The Dragon - Vlad Tepes' father. Apparently he lived here for a few years while in exile and even did some coin minting, illegal at the time as only the King could do that. He also issued the first document listing the city's Romanian name, Sighișoara, which is first attested in 1435, and derives from the Hungarian Segesvár, where vár means"fort." Vlad's son was also born here, the Vlad that grew up to become The Impaler, or Dracula in Bram Stoker's eyes. I looked for his house but didn't find it - there was a restaurant posing as his birthplace, and a few other places making suspicious claims to the famous man, all of which I pretty much ignored. The town itself if stunning - true European Medieval buildings, walls, towers, churches and houses with their thick, stone bases inclined to help protect against attack. Keeping in mind that there ones only one train back in the afternoon, I didn't have too much time to explore, but it's a small place so that wasn't a real problem, although I would have liked to have taken it slower. I didn't go up the main tower like the other tourists, contenting myself to walking the city walks and avoiding the gypsies that seemed to be everywhere.


The 14th Century Clock Tower in town and a big tourist attraction.
Dracula's room... or is it?
The Clock Tower in Sighișoara.
The train back was interesting (and also late). A guy asked me for the time, but spoke no English, I showed him the time and he seemed happy. Then when I got on the train, he asked me for some food, which I didn't have (but normally would have shared no problem), then his mate go on and they asked me for money - the penny dropped and I realised I was dealing with gypsies again. The conductor came on and asked for tickets, of which my new friends didn't have, but the conductor ignored them, more trouble that it was worth. More came on and started arguing over money which had somehow magically appeared. I tried to ignore all of this commotion in the little 6-seater booth I was in, which was made worse by the fact that they stank and the window was jammed closed. After a while they realised they weren't getting anything and left. I had been a good day despite the weather and my travel buddies, but I had to get back to Sibiu and the following day back to Bucharest. My time here in Romania was up, only 2 days to catch up with friends in the city before heading back to Barcelona. I'd had a great time, and sometimes wondered what it would be like to live here, in a fairytale city like Sibiu, or up in the Transylvanian mountains... but this is Summer, Winter here is another story, a long, cold story. Thanks Romania for the great times - I hope to come back again one day!

The Clock Tower in Sighișoara.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

From Mountains To The City

Goodbye mountains - hello cities!
Enjoying the views.
Street food - Romanian stlye!
My 4 weeks in Podu Dambovitei had come to an end. I was a little sad, as I had really enjoyed the my bedroom view, working with the kids (most of them) and just the country life in general - fresh air, peace and quiet, walking in the woods or hills, and a slower pace of life. I've always loved storms - Sydney Spring and Summer storms are my favourite. A hot 30c+ day, come home after work and crack open a beer, sit on the patio and watch the storm roll in, all thunder and lightning, a bit of a downpour then off it goes, leaving behind a beautiful rainbow... Ganggajang style. Summer in the Romanian mountains wasn't that different really, the storms came in every few days but took ages to roll in, you could hear them threatening for hours sometimes, giving you enough time to bring in the rest of the hay, buy a beer or two and find a nice place to watch it. These things are lovely to watch and listen to, the lightning lighting up the sky, the thunder echoing off the mountains - and you can't take a photo of this really, you just have to enjoy it! My time here was up though and I had decided to head a little further North through the Bran Pass and onto Brasov, Sibiu and maybe even a little place called Sighisoara (the birthplace of Vlad Tepes) if I had time. I had deliberately booked my flight 7 days after my end date with work to do this, and now was the time - I'd waited to come to Romania for nearly 10 years and now I had a fist full of Lei and a week to burn it. Show me what you have Romania!


The "Hollywood" signs are very popular here - you always know where you are too.
The main street of Brasov.
The Black Church.
From Podu I got the 10:30am bus to Brasov, a 2.5 hours trip in a mini bus crammed with farmers (and their scythes), local workers and people going to the 'big smoke' to do some Saturday shopping. I got off the bus at the terminal, just outside the city centre, and grabbed a taxi to my hostel - not my style usually, but considering it was 2 euros between 2 people (and the girl that was sharing had very heavy bags), I didn't really mind that much. I checked into my hostel, grabbed my camera and headed straight out - my style completely! Brasov is known in Romania for being one of the most beautiful cities in the country, and it did not disappoint me either.

Brasov - one of the most beautiful cities in Europe!
An Orthodox church in Brasov.

Romania bakeries are awesome!
Warm weather and sun always helps but it would be hard to make this place look bad - stunning architecture, big plaza surround by beautiful buildings and a church in the middle, shops and restaurants lining the pedestrianised streets - it is a typical Eastern European-style city, making me think of other cities such as Krakow and Prague (even though that's more Central European, it has a distinctive style). Apart from all this at street-level, you have the Hollywood-esk sign on the mountain above the town (just like in Rasnov), just in case you forgot where you were, and the Black Church. The Biserica Neagră (Romanian) is the grand Gothic style church in the centre of the city, built in the 14th Century by the German settlers brought to the region by the Hungarians to populate the area, as well as to develop mines, towns and cultivate the land. The church itself is large, being the biggest Lutheran place or worship in the region, and although it's not really black now, it was named that after a huge fire in 1689 nearly destroyed the whole thing. Entry is 9 lei (€2 or $3), and although I don't like paying to get into a church, is a decent price. I wasn't allowed to take any photos inside (so they could sell the books and postcards?) so I had to soak it all up - apart from the soaring pillars and stained-glass windows, there were beautifully hand-painted religious scenes on the pews, statues and Bohemian Gothic art.

The Black Church.
Smallest street in Brasov.
Dracula Cola!
After the church I decided to walk around the city walls. The city of Brasov was basically founded by the Teutonic Knights, ordered by King Andras of Hungary in 1211 to defend the southern border - they were later evicted but the settlers stayed on and Brasov stayed and thrived. Around the old city there are stone walls and numerous gatehouses, the oldest being Catherine's which is the only one to survive from Medieval times. It was a pleasant walk, I hiked up some stairs which lead me to half-way up a hill to a tower which gave wonderful views of the city and the cool rooftops. Also on my walk around the city, avoiding the wonderful bakeries as I did (only because I would have spent all day eating), I found, by accident, one of Europe's narrowest streets. Strada Sforii was originally built as a passageway for fireman to use but is now a tourist attraction - it is the 3rd narrowest street after Parliament Street in Exeter, England, and Spreuerhofstraße in Reutlingen, Germany (the smallest in the World at 31cm to 50cms wide), varying in width from 111cms to 135 cms and running for 80m. Not somewhere you want to run into another group of people coming the other way or find out that you are slightly more than 135cms wide!


The view of Brasov Old Town from a watchtower.
Vlad Tepes' street.
The main square in Brasov.
I met up with two friends and we went out for dinner. Food in Romania is great - tasty, a wide variety (they do good pizzas here too!) and the beer is cold and cheap. We enjoyed sitting in the main plaza watching the sunset drinking ice cold beverages. When it started to get dark, we headed out of the city centre and to an English pub that was supposed to have a live band on for the night. We found the pub, and although it wasn't very English, it was ok and again, the beers were cheap enough. The band that was coming on was a little late so we decided to search their website and see what kind of music they did. Big mistake - they were  a Grease Tribute band and the lead singer was atrocious! Just after discovering this dirty little secret of theirs, they turned up - I couldn't look at the band and had to leave before they started to play - better than walking out during a performance! I wandered back to my hostel, the last night here in Brasov, in a good mood, full of beer and ready to sleep. 

Brasov fortress.
European architecture at it's best.
Where I am again?
I jumped into my bottom bunk, curled up and was ready to sleep, but there was a snorer. After 6 months backpacking through South America, sleeping in dorms in Japan and a fair bit of travelling in general, you'd think that by now I would be used to this. Let me tell you - you never, ever get used to snoring. It is the worst thing in the World and they seem to start each other up too, like car alarms that are triggered by other car alarms. Ear plugs don't work for me, they irritate me and don't block out serious snorers either. There's only one thing to do - wake the bastard up. Blanket over his head didn't work, neither did clapping/clicking my fingers (sudden sounds can wake them) or throwing things at his head (I was hoping that something would lodge in his mouth/nose and he'd just pass away silently) so I had to kick his pillow to wake him up. He woke up, looked around then rolled back over, none the wiser. Sleep came at last for me too but I was rudely awaken at 5am by a guy vomiting all over the floor near his bunk. Not a quick gag, this was a full-on alcohol chunder that seemed to last forever. To his credit, he cleaned it right up! You have to look on the bright side sometimes.


Sunday is church day.
Church towers.
Brasov's main street.
Apart from the Black Church, there are many in Brasov to see and they are all free, you're able to take photos, are beautiful and aren't packed with tourists. Walk around and you'll find small Orthodox churches tucked away, only the locals going there to pray on Sunday. I will always be amazed at how many people here regularly go to church, kissing icons, kneeling down and crossing chests and just attending the services in general. While walking more or less aimlessly, going where my camera took me, I stumbled across an Anti-Communist memorial. The Romanian anti-communist resistance movement was active from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s and some fighters continuing 'the good fight' into the 60s. After this period, the government really clamped down and there were executions of men and women, including one in 1959 when 80 were 'caught' and killed by the regime. It wasn’t until the overthrow of Nicolae Ceauşescu in late 1989 that details about what was called “anti-communist armed resistance” were made public. I didn't ask too many people about these days as people my age barely remember it and it's not something you really want to talk about. In most towns though there is a memorial and tombstones remembering those who fought and died to free their country from the Communists, leading to the brighter Romania that we see today.


The Anti-Communist memorial.


Memorial to the freedom fighter of '89.
The inside of churches here are incredibly ornate.
After a few good days in Brasov it was time to move on - I only had 6 days in Romania after the Summer Camp, so I had to move if I was going to see more of this country. I jumped on the train to Sibiu in the early afternoon, having booked a hostel there for a night. I like to only book for 1 night, then if I like it (and there are no snorers) I stay more - I don't like to be trapped in a crap hostel because I've panicked about spaces and reserved for a week! You don't get to catch many trains in our day and age anymore - busses rule South America and Asia and in Europe most people have a car or fly. The train was a decent price and would arrive just before sunset in Sibiu - I got on and was pleasantly surprised too. It wasn't spray-painted with graffiti like the other local trains, but there was air conditioning, nice seats and a lack of gypsies - all good signs! The ride was pleasant, chugging along through the countryside, past abandoned railway stations and tiny villages with their lone church. I read my book, listening to my travel music and train to not get too excited about my next destination - I knew it would be amazing, but you don't want to get your hopes up too much, I would rather not expect too much and then be blown away.
Waiting for the train to Sibiu.

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