Across the Atlantic

Today is already the last day of our cruise. (Pardon me: the Queen Mary 2 is actually an ocean liner, not a cruise ship, and we’re on a crossing not a cruise—or so I’ve been told by some other passengers.)

It’s been a year of firsts in so many ways, and so why not one more? This is the first time I’ve ever been away from dry land for so long. Unlike a typical cruise, a crossing like this doesn’t have any port days, just day after day on the endless ocean, the horizon a flat, blue line line in every direction. Each day at noon the captain announces where the nearest land is, usually some speck of rock and dirt miles and miles away that I’ve never heard of. There’s been little to interrupt the watery view; it was a few days before we even spied another ship, and then only in the far distance. Once we spotted a passing freighter. Luckily, we’ve been in the right place at the right time on two occasions to see big groups of passing dolphins arcing out of the water.

A few nights ago, a tremendous storm woke us at three in the morning when the glassware on the counter in our room all started clattering over. By then we were used to the continuous rocking of the ship, but now it was leaning decidedly in one direction. While we got things picked up and secured, we heard the sound of more things falling over coming from other cabins. The feeling of leaning continually toward one side was eerie. The next day the captain informed us that the nearly hundred knot winds from the storm had caught the starboard side of the ship like a sail and pushed us into a five degree tilt to port. Of course, the girls had slept through the whole thing.

The people you meet on board

Traveling means meeting people from all over and this has been no exception. Our first day, we met a pleasant couple from a London suburb while we were in the long line to get boarded. And even with thousands of people aboard, we’ve managed to run into them numerous times. Then there’s the thoroughly bronzed guy who looks like he lives his life on the pool deck. And he just might—he told me he’s done this crossing alone upwards of thirty times. We met a family from the UK who always travels to America this way because the wife doesn’t like to fly. And it’s been impossible to miss the large group of Mennonites in their traditional garb, with bonnets for the women and decidedly old-school hairstyles and Abe Lincoln beards for the men.

Let’s eat… and eat and eat and eat

If you want to pad your waistline, there’s no better way to do it than aboard a cruise ship. I can certainly see how people get on board, start eating… and never stop. A variety of restaurants serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you can always get second breakfast or elevensies at the buffet. There’s a pub-style place with good fish and chips, a French restaurant, and a place just for dessert. Each afternoon white-gloved waiters serve tea in Queen’s Room with all of the usual accoutrements. And just in case you don’t feel like following the dress code (I’ve never dressed up this much for dinner in my entire life), room service is available twenty-four hours a day.

Entertainment

Without any port calls, Merideth was a bit concerned that life aboard ship might get a little dull. And while this ship doesn’t have all of the amenities that some do (like rock climbing walls and waterslides), there’s always something going on: there are no shortage of fitness classes, shows, concerts, dancing, lectures, watercolor classes, and more. Last night we enjoyed a great magic show and today we went to a throughly entertaining one-act version of Pride and Prejudice that had us all laughing. We’ve had plenty of time to read, watch the Olympics, and play some throwback board games like Trivial Pursuit and Clue and Monopoly (which is just as brutal as you remember). And spending time at the pool is always a good idea. But there’s no doubt: this ship and this itinerary definitely appeals to an older set. There aren’t a whole lot of other kids aboard, but plenty of people who don’t have a lot of hair left. Sometimes I feel like I somehow ended up at a weeklong AARP retreat.

Worship at sea

On Sunday we attended the ecumenical worship service led by the captain. It consisted of readings, prayers and hymns. We sang a number of hymns, including “Be Thou My Vision” and “How Great Thou Art,” which the Captain described as “a typical American hymn—long and loud.” One of the officers read the passage from 1 Kings about Solomon asking the Lord for wisdom, and one of the entertainment directors read the passage from Luke in which Jesus tells a parable about an arrogant Pharisee (whose prayer is full of pride) and a humble tax collector (who pleads to God for mercy). The Captain read “the sailor’s version” of the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my pilot…” And being a British ship, the prayers included blessings on the queen.

One last night

This afternoon we’re getting packed up once again, and tonight we have our last dinner on the ship. We also get one more night with an extra hour of sleep, which will be quite welcome since we plan to get up around 5 a.m. to see the Statue of Liberty as we arrive in New York in the morning. It’s a bit hard to believe: tomorrow the girls and I will see America for the first time in over a year.

Traveling light? Not this time.

“Did you leave anything at home?” the cab driver teased in his cheerful British accent as he sized us up.

London. St. Pancras Station. We’d just gotten off the Eurostar from Paris and were the last ones to make the short journey from the platform to the taxi queue. Why? Because our family of four was schlepping four bags—each. That’s right, sixteen suitcases and backpacks and assorted bags in all, including a giant, last-minute-purchased duffel bag I hope to never use again. I don’t even want to know how much it all weighed, but our groaning, sweaty backs and straining fingers said it weighed a lot.

Under normal circumstances, we always, always travel light. Under normal circumstances, it means one bag each. Weekend getaway? One bag each. Two weeks overseas? One bag each. Traveling light means you get off the plane and go, you change trains with ease. No waiting around staring at baggage carousels, no looking around for luggage trolleys or elevators. You’ve got it all on your back, you’re agile, you can go anywhere.
But these were not normal circumstances. This was no weekend getaway, no two-week vacation. This time, we were making the journey home with everything we’d had with us in Paris for the past year.

We didn’t entertain the idea of shipping anything home. After all, I thought, we’re not big shoppers. We don’t buy souvenirs everywhere (or hardly even anywhere) we go. Over the course of the year, I’d picked up a new suit, a few shirts, and a pair of shoes. A new-to-me leather computer bag at a vintage shop. Some books. Not much, right? And as we packed up, I threw out my well-worn shoes that had served me so well and taken me to so many different places. I found a nearby collection station and dropped off a load of tired clothes and things the girls had outgrown. I gave away the region 2 DVD player we’d picked up and gave most of the books I’d bought to a friend. We all threw out stacks and stacks of papers and assorted debris that had accumulated.

But even so, we were taking home quite a bit more than we’d come with. Where had it all come from? Oh right—there were those bulky winter coats we’d bought so we wouldn’t freeze in Chamonix. A few games. Art projects the girls had made along with mementos from school. Journals and keepsakes. Some souvenir mugs and new purses for the girls. Even enough Christmas ornaments for a medium-sized tree. (Because if you celebrate Christmas while you’re living in Paris, of course you want a tree, and no, you didn’t bring any ornaments with you, so that means you better buy some, and then you’ll want to take them home so you can decorate next year’s tree with those ornaments and remember your time in Paris, right?)

Take the long way home

Somehow, it all added up to a lot more than we came with. And now we had to get it home—and the journey home was just starting.

First stop? Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar to London. We were leaving Paris, but we weren’t flying home, not yet.

First problem? How to get there. All those bags on the métro would be a nightmare. The taxi service I called was skeptical we could even get it all in one car. Thankfully, our friend Val came to our rescue with her car and we did get it all in. She got us to the station and we survived lugging it all through check-in and passport control and got boarded.

The ride to London was quick (upwards of 300 km per hour) and uneventful. At St. Pancras we found a couple of luggage trolleys, made a few trips on the elevator and found a nice, big British cab with that nice driver who got us to our hotel near Waterloo Station. Merideth checked us in and the girls and I guarded our small mountain range of bags lined up on the sidewalk until a bellhop helped us up to our room. At last, we’d made it through the first leg.

One night in London

With all our luggage stowed in our room like it was a self-storage unit, we headed out to experience our first evening together in an English-speaking country in exactly a year. We looked for someplace for pub food, but ended up at a comfortable outdoor place with tapas and nachos and ribs. Guacamole! Jalapeños! Food with an actual spicy kick! We were definitely not in France anymore. (I think I can safely predict we will be making up for our nacho/taco/enchilada deficit for weeks and maybe even months to come.)

It was a pleasant evening and we took in the views along the Thames: the London Eye, Parliament and Big Ben. In the morning we had enough time to stroll through St. James Park, wave at Buckingham Palace, and take a look at Trafalgar Square. But soon enough it was time to make our second schlep: this time we were on our own to get all those bags to our next train.

Train, taxi, ship

The good news? Our hotel was right next to the station. The bad news? It may have been next to the station, but the walk from the front door of the hotel to station entrance was at least seven or eight minutes—if we weren’t carrying anything. With four bags each, it took more than twice that long. We made it, of course, and shuttled everything up the steps into the station, found the right track (about as far from the entrance as possible, of course), learned there were no trolleys, and shuttled everything to the track and finally, at last, onto the train. And just over an hour later we got off at Southhampton. One more slog (with trolleys this time) to one more taxi stand and at last to the port. We’d made it: our ship awaited.

Twenty-five hours a day

When we started putting out plans together to get back home, we figured we’d fly. How else do you get home from Paris? You get yourself to Charles de Gaulle and you get on a plane, hopefully a nonstop. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of any other option. But Merideth is always thinking.

As we were finalizing our plans, she mentioned that we could take a ship from the UK to New York City and fly home from there. “But I know you’ll want to just get home,” she said, thinking I wouldn’t be interested. Well now, hold on there, wait a minute: we can take a ship in eight days? Cut six out of nine hours of jet lag by gaining an hour most of those days? Catch our breath and take in the ocean views before getting resettled in Seattle? And get to visit some wonderful friends in New York as a bonus? Sign me up!

And so here we are, on the Queen Mary 2. None of us have ever cruised before, not like this. I’ve spent a few nights on a sailboat and a week on a catamaran, but never on a floating city with restaurants and fitness classes and Herbie Hancock performing in the evening. I’ve finished reading a couple of novels and made some progress on further revisions of my own. The girls are enjoying art classes, we’ve met some nice people, and last night we all watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

Before we know it we’ll be packing everything up again for the last legs of the journey, but till then we’ll enjoy the view of the big blue sea and the flat line of the horizon the stretches out in every direction.

(Note: it’s fantastic that we have internet on board, but it’s a bit finicky and slow, so pictures might have to wait till we get back on dry land…)

A final full day in Paris

How to spend one last day in Paris before moving back to America? For us it meant finally getting out to Versailles.

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This view is just a sliver of the huge palace.

That’s right; it took us the whole year to actually get out to the grandest château of them all. We toured the main château, enjoyed the gardens and fountains and went boating on the long, narrow pond before taking in the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon–two smaller residences that are impressive in their own right.

During our final days we have some family visiting, and so we’re taking in some of the big Paris sights again (or for the first time on this trip, like Versailles): The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. The Louvre and the Orsay. The Tour de France. The next few days we’ll be traveling a bit before we say goodbye to France for good on Sunday.

Like any big change or move, it feels strange now that it’s finally here. We’ve already got a lot packed up and done plenty of throwing stuff out and giving things away. We’re trying to get through everything in the cupboards and the fridge, but there are plenty of products that seemed like a good idea at the time that we haven’t even touched. C’est la vie.

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So: just a few more days. And then a whole new adventure begins: a voyage home… to a new home. More about that to come.

Here we go: let the goodbyes begin

The best part of living in Paris? Without a doubt, it’s the people we’ve met and the friends we’ve made. The hardest thing about leaving Paris? Leaving those friends behind.

Our year in Paris has been a wonderful time of making new  friends: classmates and parents from the girls’ school, people I’ve met playing in a band, and especially those we’ve met through our church, Trinity International.

Yesterday was our last Sunday worshiping there.

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After our last service at Trinity, with our friends, Paco and Leslie.

And not only was it our last Sunday, I also got to preach the message. I hadn’t preached since we moved to Paris (other than giving a brief devotional at a missionary retreat in the south of France last fall), but it went well and I even got a few laughs from my jokes—and if I can get my teenagers to laugh, they couldn’t have been too corny.

(Just a brief aside on preaching in an international context: this was my first time having to prepare for a congregation that had a considerable number of people who don’t speak English as their first language. It meant getting my message ready further in advance than normal so that the French translator could prepare. It meant thinking through the language and idioms I use that might be a bit tricky to translate or that could be confusing to some people—because some might be listening who don’t speak English as their first language but don’t speak French either! All in all, it was a great experience.)

From the first, we were warmly welcomed when we found Trinity last fall. Right away we met other expats as well as French people in addition to people from every continent (well, except for Antarctica).

Obviously, simply being in Paris is a wonderful thing, but it’s even better when it means making new friends to meet for dinner, or coffee, or a picnic. It’s meant getting together for game nights, going for a hike, or having a friend to go to a museum with. The girls have enjoyed the youth activities, we’ve done a treasure hunt that took us all over Paris, and even got to go see the Pentatonix with another family. We were welcomed into friends’ homes for Easter dinner and barbecues and pizza night.

Who knew we’d meet such a great group of avid gamers? Terra Mystica, Blood Rage, Code Names, Dead Men Tell No Tales… We had no shortage of good times gaming.

Creative Nights at the church’s Genesis Center were a hit with the girls. I save my creative energies for writing and music, but I always had fun talking it up with other people.

Food–one of my favorite things…

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…and something that definitely brings people together.

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The fall retreat.

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Carolyn and me singing at Music Night.

Finding Trinity turned out to be another great opportunity for music. With only a year here, there was no time to waste waiting around; after feeling so welcomed, I quickly asked about getting involved in the music. Soon enough I was getting chances to play bass and even serve as one of the worship leaders.

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Most of our songs were in English, but I’m going to miss worshiping in French!

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Thank you for such a wonderful year, Trinity. We’re going to miss you.

 

A visit to a few French Châteaux

Just two weeks left of our year in France. Two weeks! The goodbyes are hitting hard and we’re notching plenty of “this is the the last time we’ll do this…” moments.

But before we go, we’re packing in a few more places to see. On Saturday we rented a car and strung together visits to three châteaux in the Loire Valley. Along with a leisurely multi-course French lunch, a visit to a medieval fair and plenty of driving through lovely countryside, it all made for a wonderful day trip.

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Château de Cheverny

We did have some adventures tracking down a gas station that would accept my credit card and got stuck for a bit at a toll booth that refused accept my card–sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t; it’s a mystery–but let’s get right to the good stuff.

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Bastille Day

More tragedy in France. This time in Nice.

Though we visited that beautiful city a few months ago, we were in Paris for the celebration of la fête nationale–or le quatorze juillet, as I heard most people here call it–or Bastille Day as we call it in English.

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Just before the show.

Security was tight. As we crossed the Bir-Hakeim bridge from our neighborhood to get to the Eiffel Tower side, we stopped with many others and considered watching from there. That is, until a solid line of police started sweeping everyone off the bridge. So we proceeded on to one of the entrances to the Champ de Mars, the huge park below the tower. For the past month it’s been the site of a huge fan zone for the Euro 2016 football championship and it’s been outfitted with no shortage of security: fences and checkpoints and streets blocked off and lots and lots of guards with guns.

We got to the first security checkpoint and we even managed to find a reasonably short line. Merideth and the girls got through without incident, but I had the bag with a bottle of wine. Sorry, the guard said, no alcohol. I couldn’t believe it. This is France–everyone brings their bottle of wine to the park! I’d even read an article that very day that recommended a bottle per person when picnicking in the park on Bastille Day–three bottles per person if you were going to be there all day! And we just had one between the two of us. Oh well. So we all trooped out of the security zone and regrouped.

The short version is I stopped fuming about the dumb security rules, we talked to another guard, learned the problem wasn’t the alcohol but the glass bottle, Merideth bought a bottle of water, we guzzled the water, transferred the wine, got back in line, and got through. But this time a different guard confiscated a couple of dinner forks from our bag and made me throw them away (sorry, landlord). We also had to unscrew and throw away the bottle caps from our water and soda. At last, we were in.

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Carolyn thought the antics with getting wine into the park were pretty hilarious. I felt like some college kid trying to sneak booze into a football game.

Not quite. After this came another round of security. The first was just bag check; now we had to go through pat down. We got through fine, even though the guy who patted me down felt the corkscrew in my pocket. I was sure it would be another casualty, but he motioned me on and I didn’t argue.

Inside the perimeter, the place was already swarming. We got there around 7pm and the orchestra wasn’t on until after 9 and the fireworks wouldn’t be till 11. We found a spot off to one side where it wasn’t as crowded and even managed to find some friends from our church already set up nearby.

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This was before it got really crowded.

Our picnic was great: we played cards, enjoyed our Mediterranean take-out, talked with our friends, and the fireworks turned out to be perhaps the most spectacular feu d’artifice I’ve ever witnessed.

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If pictures are worth a thousand words, well, then I’d need a few hundred thousand to describe the many and varied fireworks that exploded all around the Eiffel Tower and were even shot from it throughout the night–and all coordinated to music.

All in all, we had a wonderful night in Paris. That said, it’s truly heartbreaking and disturbing and flat out terrible that the celebrations in Nice were marred by yet another act of terrorism. But the sad truth is that even with all of our security, we can’t prevent every awful thing from happening. No amount of confiscating forks and bottle caps and making sure no glass bottles are in sight will prevent a determined terrorist from driving a truck through a crowd of people celebrating.

Some ask: how long will we have to keep living like this? When will it stop? Well, have you looked at history? Has there ever been an era free from violence? I don’t believe we can enact enough security measures to prevent any bad thing from ever happening again–and I wouldn’t want to live in the world that tries such a thing. Nor do I think arming citizens to the teeth will make things better.

Personally, I don’t know how people have hope in this world for violence and terrorism and war to actually, truly, permanently end. It’s all been a part of our world as long as people have been a part of the world. Does that mean we’re without hope? I don’t think so.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7)

That’s the only hope I have.

“These honored dead shall not have died in vain”

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No, this isn’t Normandy. A look in the other direction and you can see…

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…Paris and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Against the blue sky, the American flag flies at half staff in honor of those killed in Dallas on July 7.

This is the Suresnes American Cemetery just outside the city, the only American Military Cemetery in Europe where the dead from both World War I and World War II are buried: 1,541 from World War I and 24 unknown dead from World War II. 974 Americans buried or lost at sea from 1917-1920 are also commemorated.

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It was a beautiful day to explore parts of Paris we hadn’t been to. After the coldest, wettest, most-Seattle-like-spring we could’ve ever imagined, summer seems to have finally arrived for good in time for our last few weeks here. I’d been scouting out some parks with views of the city that we hadn’t seen before and discovered Fort Mont-Valérien, perched on a hill not far away in the suburb of Suresnes. The cemetery sits just below the fort and behind the Terrasse du Fécheray, a lovely observation point that looks toward Paris.

The view from the terrace was the real reason we came, and it wasn’t a bad view…

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The Eiffel Tower just beyond the sea of green that is the Bois de Boulogne, a huge park on the western edge of Paris.

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Looking toward La Defense, the modern district of high rises to the northwest of central Paris.

…but visiting the cemetery was more moving.

As an American, of course the American cemeteries I’ve seen are striking because I feel a connection to them. But as we’ve driven through small towns around France, almost everywhere we go we come across monuments and memorials to those who died in the wars, especially World War I. They turn up in plazas, in churches, and even at humble intersections. Every city and every town records those who were lost, their names etched in stone. In the U.S. you can visit Washington D.C. and see such memorials, and occasionally you find them elsewhere around the country. But here they are everywhere; every place you go has been touched.

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The World War II memorial at Fort Mont-Valérien.

It’s sobering to look at the rows and rows of memorials to those who died fighting and killing their enemies. The hope is that they will not have died in vain. But in this world, the fight is–and ever will  be–ongoing. World War I was called the war to end all wars; it didn’t work out that way.

War is hell–so said General Sherman, although when (or if) he spoke that famous phrase is apparently a matter of debate. But he did address a crowd in Columbus, Ohio and declare, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

I have no illusions that we will see the end of war anytime soon–or even of hatred and malice and infighting and racism and prejudice and bias and every sort of enmity. But while we have breath, may we live by these words: “blessed are the peacemakers.” Oh, how we need them now.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…
He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths…
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

–from Isaiah 2:3-4

 

A glimpse of beauty

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In the midst of this dark world with so much pain and so much that is wrong, it is good to watch a young woman take an old man by the arm and help him make his way down the sidewalk. Halfway across a small square in front of a small church, they pause and he points with his cane toward an empty bench. She leads him to it and they sit down. They talk for a few minutes while the pigeons peck at the ground. Then they are on their way again. They walk slowly. She is ever at his side, matching his pace, holding his arm, watching his every step. And soon they are gone.

Three days in Provence

One of my college roommates is visiting us, and one of his priorities was to see Provence. A  very good priority, don’t you think? And as I’d never been down there, we were happy to take in a new part of France.

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Lavender! It’s all over Provence.

So last Friday we took the morning TGV (the fast train) to Avignon, rented a car and toured around, taking in a number of the towns: St. Remy, Les Baux, Gordes, Sur la Sourge, and Roussillon. We stopped in at the twelfth century Sénanque Abbey and visited a Roman bridge, that at 2,002 years old, made the abbey seem like a recent establishment.

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Drop everything and jam

Another unexpected text? Another unexpected opportunity? This time of the musical variety. Sounds good!

Ten days ago (I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, but an unexpected trip to Rome and a visit from a college roommate have kept me busy) I was with my writing group at my place for our weekly writing meet up. We’d already done three of our 45-minute timed writing sessions and downed plenty of coffee when a friend who was having her CD release show that night texted me, asking, “How comfortable are you with jazz piano?”

Truth is, long long long ago, I played some jazz in high school and college, but jazz bass, not piano; my piano studies were always classical. And since those days, I’ve played mostly pop music, which is much simpler: simpler harmonically… simpler rhythmically… simpler in every way, really. But hey, I’m not going to say no, right? So I told her, sure, I can fake it–what do you have in mind?

Turns out her pianist was sick and she needed someone to fill in at the show that night. Okay. Sure. No problem. A flurry of texts and emails followed, chord charts got printed, and I managed a quick listen to a few–but not all–of the songs we’d be doing.

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Jenn Whiteman, singing and playing guitar at her Latimer Road EP Release show.

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