Tag Archives: rants

Things I’ve Learned Between Spain and San Francisco

So my last post was a big one for me. Not only was it the 100th post I’ve added to this blog, which is a big deal because I neverrrr keep anything up this long (yay me!), but it also marked the passing of exactly one year since the day I moved to Spain.

One year from the day that I stepped off the plane, collected my 70+ pounds of luggage and trekked it sola into Barcelona via soggy Aerobus, I am back, settled in San Francisco, and actually liking it a lot. That’s not to say that I don’t miss Spain so so so much, but I have learned that I need to give the good ol’ USA another shot to see if I can find some of the things that I love so much about Spain right here in my own backyard. I’ve learned some other things too, about Spain, about America, about everything. Here are a few of them:

1. There really is no substitute for cañas and tapas on a terracita in Andalucía or Madrid. I know that even if I find the best Spanish restaurant in San Francisco and I sit outside and I order a beer and all my favorite dishes, it won’t even compare to having a little nasty beer and some olive-oil soaked, fried seafood at even the dingiest little Spanish bar. I might miss this more than anything else, and even though that might seem shallow and petty and a little alcoholic, I think the terracita/tapas/cañas experience says a lot about the Spanish lifestyle, and I do not mean to suggest the typical lazy/party/etc. stereotype. I’m sure I’ll get back to this later at some point.

2. San Francisco is the most European city in America. I haven’t been all over the country, so this claim is really not very well researched, but I am shocked at how “European” San Francisco feels. I don’t really know what I mean by European, but I think it involves being able to walk to one store to get your (daily) bread, walking to another store to get your fruit, walking to work (!!!), taking public transportation, hearing dozens of different languages every day on the street, seeing hundreds of tourists from all over the world, hearing church bells from my bedroom window (hello, Baeza), being able to drink in a park (kinda), and a number of other things. I feel like people enjoy life here, not to the degree that I think the Spanish do, but more than what I remembered of California when I was abroad. There is a huge appreciation for great food and great wine and the outdoors and eating on sidewalks, and I definitely feel a bit of that joie de vivre (alegría de vivir?) that I love Europe for.

3. I love traveling and I love backpacking, but I don’t like living out of a backpack. After spending five months in Andalucía essentially moving a week’s worth of living supplies every four days, I really appreciate being able to come home, throw my things on the floor, and not have to immediately start doing my laundry because I know that it is going to take four days to hang dry everything when it’s snowing outside. Traveling is my favorite thing in the world, but there really is something great about that first night of sleep in your own bed, especially when you get to snuggle into an awesome bed in an awesome city. There is also something great about being able to have a full-time, secure, legal job that pays you enough to survive and not having to ask yourself “will it fit in my suitcase?” every time you see something awesome at a store. Also, I love buying furniture and plants, and after a year of holding myself back, I am ready for a shopping spree!

4. Unlimited cell phone plans > pre-paid Nokia cell phones from 2001 that cost 27 Euro cents/minute. Also, unlimited data and gps has changed my life. Goodbye, Yoigo!

5. I am addicted to olive oil. I remember the year before I went to Spain I used about a bottle and a half of oil….the whole year…while cooking for two people almost every night. Granted, I used some butter, but mostly I used the oil. In the past month and a half I have used the same amount that I used that entire year. Next purchase, to my roommates’ dismay: una freidora.

6. Parks are cool. Parks are cooler when you can drink alcohol in them. I think this speaks for itself. I will cite some examples where you should try this activity out with minimal risk of bodily harm/imprisonment: Parque del Buen Retiro, Dolores Park, Washington Square Park.

7. Vermouth is good on the rocks, and it’s just as good on a rooftop terrace in San Francisco as it is at a bar in Madrid.

8. Pan Tumaca and a cafe con leche is still my favorite breakfast. But only if I know that later in the afternoon I’ll be having a huge multi-course lunch, followed by a generous nap.

9. America is awesome, if only for the lack of siesta and presence of 24-hour everythings. I can get anything in San Francisco, and I can get it whenever I want it. Yes, I am in a freezing cold, artificially lit grey cubicle all day, straight through the time that would be siesta time if it existed here, but I don’t care. I take comfort in knowing that across the street from my office, there is a Walgreens that sells everything I could ever need, and it is always open. And if it’s not, there is a Walgreen’s every other block along my route home and at least ten of them will be open and selling everything from Cheetos to shoes to picture frames. Go USA.

10. Taking pictures is always worth it. Even when I feel like a total tourist, even when I have to embarrass myself to get the photo or feel lame for snapping a cheesy shot, it’s always worth it. I have to try to remember this here, because I want so badly to not look like a tourist in a place where I can finally feel like a local (well at least I speak the local language). I’m not saying you should get some random, ill-lit shots of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate. Take pictures you want to remember. Take pictures you can frame and put up on your walls, or share with your kids, or give as gifts to people you were with. The really good pictures I have are some of my most valuable possessions, and they are the best souvenirs you could possibly take home from a trip.

11. Hearing cool noises from your bedroom window gets old fast, no matter where you are. First it was the bats in Baeza. I could hear them squeaking away all night. Awesome! For like two seconds. Then it was the church bells. Then horse hooves. Then sheep and firecrakers in La Puerta de Segura. What a combo. Now here in San Francisco, I started with the fog horn. FOG HORNS! Who wakes up to a fog horn in the middle of the night besides a wayward seaman? Moments ago, I discovered that on beautiful clear nights like tonight, the sound of barking sea lions will carry clear across the ten or so blocks that separate my home from theirs, straight into my bedroom window. I used to like sea lions.

12. I have never seen so many bizarre/crazy/creepy people on the streets in my life as I’ve seen in the past month in San Francisco. Maybe New York has more, but San Francisco’s got them beat on the crazy/sane ratio. Maybe I never really noticed the sheer volume when I lived in L.A., but Europe seemed to have much fewer homeless, and much fewer crazies (though many more homeless amputees, weirdly). It’s interesting, sad, and a little scary all at once. It also makes riding on a MUNI bus a farrrrrrr weirder experience than any metro ride I ever took in Madrid.

13. The best view of Alcatraz, and of the whole Bay is from the hill path in Fort Mason, right before sunset, when the sun has fallen below the fog layer so that everything on top is dark and gloomy and everything on the bottom is burning gold and pink. It’s absolutely beautiful, and every time I see it I like San Francisco a little bit more.

So there are 13 things I learned. There will be more to come, because there is a lot to learn, a lot to eat, and a lot to do in this great city, and like it or not, I compare everything to Spain now. Spain is still my favorite place on earth, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon, but for now I am pretty darn happy to call San Francisco home.

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It’s Official

Welp, I moved. I guess it’s official now because I have the keys and am actually sitting inside the place. I would describe it as something between gorgeous and awesome and incredible. Between a roof deck with views of every San Francisco landmark imaginable to the huge bedrooms to the updated kitchen to the location–I am pretty much in love with my new home.

Unfortunately the photo above of my new neighborhood of North Beach is pretty crappy because I took it on a phone, my other camera being still in San Diego….the move is still very much in progress. Also, you can see in the photo above how UNBELIEVABLY foggy it is here all the time. This is something I am going to have to get used to, especially because after the worst winter in Spain’s history, I pretty much only took advantage of a few weeks of warm weather before I ventured back into the cold…doesn’t seem fair. I am much more of a Mediterranean climate/dry heat kinda girl, so this is causing me some slight trauma. We’ll see how it goes. All I know right now is that there are some other places that I wish weren’t so far away so I could take advantage of some heat on a terracita…..

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Sueños Albaneses

Right now, I’m sitting in the 94 degree heat (that’s 34 degrees for you non-Fahrenheit folks) in Sacramento, California, considering my future as a soon-to-be gainfully employed San Franciscan.

I would totally rather be here:

Dhermi, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

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Edible?

I like to eat. This is no secret. But I am not one of those people who go out of their way to try the weirdest, craziest food they can find. I like to eat because I enjoy eating, and if something is weird I will totally eat it, but only if it sounds like I will enjoy it. For that reason, I don’t eat a lot of crazy-ass food. Also, I am in Spain, not in some small town in China or India or Peru, so the cuisine is preeettty similar to what I would encounter in America, except everything leans a little towards HAM. But still, they eat some nasty shit. And sometimes I love it.

Anyways, turns out I have eaten some weird stuff here. I decided to make a list. So here it is, from least weird to most weird, along with the location of where I indulged in these fine delicacies. Enjoy!:

7. Pork knee: Yep, just a pig’s knee. Turns out they are pretty big. Also turns out they taste just like RIBS!!! This was a specialty in Prague and I think it weighed something like 2.2 kilos, which is a hell of a lot of meat, regardless of whether or not there is a giant bony knee in there. Highly recommended, especially if accompanied by a humongous beer on a cold rainy day in the Czech Republic!

6. Frog’s legs: Taste like fishy chicken, look like small human legs. I also DO NOT like that the two legs (and hips and nether regions) of the frog are served still all together in one piece, like the body was just severed at the little froggy-waist, cooked (kinda), and thrown on your plate. Blah! Pontepez, Madrid. (Still love Pontepez though!)

5. Wild Boar: Served in a “huevos rotos” dish, which means eggs scrambled with slices of potato and other things, in this case “other things” would be Pumba from the Lion King. Okokok I know he was a warthog, but my friend described it to me as “Timon from El Rey Leon” because he didn’t know the word “boar,” so I had to throw that in there. Not that weird, but that is why it’s not number 1. Asturian restaurant, Madrid.

4. Angulas: Baby eels! Actually to make this even weirder, I had imitation angulas….like the “krab” version of baby eels….I wish there was some way I could spell that with a ‘K.’ Maybe they could market it as baby EELZ?? Anyways,   real angulas are extremely expensive because they are hard to catch and equally difficult to cook correctly, hence the knock-off eels,  but I am keeping this on the list because they look like this, which is freaking weird. I mean, those are all WHOLE baby eels! Not spaghetti! But even the imitation ones were delicious! Like pasta! Made out of shrimp!!! My host family’s house, Madrid.

3. Pig’s ear: Cut into little pieces, served in a paella-ish rice dish. Some pieces still had pig hairs on them: Salamanca

2. Horse….specifically horse hamburger: Evidently they sell this at Carrefour in pre-made patties, it is called “Potro.” And evidently it’s not just horse, it’s baby horse. Lovely. I actually only at 1/4 of the burger before deciding I would let baby Black Beauty rest in peace as basura. My host family’s house, Madrid.

1. Sangre con tomate: Pig’s blood, mixed with tomato and congealed into cubes that you eat with a toothpick. As nasty as you would expect): La Puerta de Segura (obviously)

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DEATH

This may be my last post ever. I just went running and I think I might be dying. It is a pleasantly SCORCHING 82 degrees outside and dandelions the size of a man’s fist are releasing their little feathery pollen pieces into the incredibly dry air at a rate so incredibly fast that it is resulting in the creation of fluffy little snowbanks on the sides of all the streets and trails. Last night I went to bed at 4:00am (I think) after a potentially deadly cocktail of beer, HAM, vermouth, Coca Cola, and copious amounts of rum. This morning I woke up at 9, ate some meatballs (obvs), and then played with Bruno for five hours. Somewhere in there I think I drank a glass of water.

That was the build-up to and the meteorological situation surrounding my decision to challenge myself with a run. Now I feel good, now that it’s over, but I think I will be regretting this decision later. Total distance: 4.5 miles/7.25km. With hills!!! Yay me!!

I actually discovered a nature park right next to my house during said run that kind of divides all the housing developments in SanSe from the neighboring countryside (ie rolling hills spotted with wildflowers, oak trees, the occasional goat, horse, or flock of sheep). There was actually one portion of the run (its the branch in the picture with the number 3) that is really high up on the crest of a hill, and from there you can see all of SanSe and the buildings of downtown Madrid on one side and the little towns and villages leading out to the Sierras (which still have a teensy tiny bit of snow on them) on the other. It was awesome! Good thing I found it now, two weeks before I leave 😦

Good news is, maybe I worked off some of that foie. Or some of that jamon iberico de bellota. Or a caña. Or my hangover! Or…oh forget it. At least I got a tan.

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Foie a la Plancha

I think that one of the most prevalent and difficult-to-defend-against stereotypes about the U.S. is that we all eat greasy, disgusting, fattening, butter-smothered crap fast food for every meal in portions large enough to kill a normal healthy European, Asian, African, bear, elephant, alien, etc. When asked about typical American food, the first response is always hamburger/McDonalds, then french fries, hot dog, then people start getting into food which some defend as food of other countries (Pizza, Mac and Cheese: people go crazy about these two being Italian), and then they start talking about eating an entire turkey, as if we each sit down every night and personally consume the corpse of an enormous bird. Then inevitably breakfast comes up where people are shocked and alarmed at the idea of eating anything other than toast and coffee before 2pm, and then they just start naming off unhealthy foods that they saw once on some TV show about how horrible Americans are. Now, while this offends me as a reasonably healthy eater and someone who hasn’t eaten McDonalds anywhere outside of EUROPE in a number of years, after many years of consideration, I think that the stereotype is misguided but in essence totally true. I also blame “American” restaurants abroad for about 70% of this stereotype. Also I am currently craving Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles so I guess I also have myself to blame a little bit.

What I have also realized is that Europe is no stranger to horribly unhealthy food or large portions of food. Some examples: Menu del día: MY GOD this is a lot of food to eat for lunch. Two courses plus a dessert and a beer? I would normally eat a sandwich or a salad and a glass of water or something at home. But here, because I am here, I can eat stew followed by ossobuco with french fries and a salad, all accompanied by a large beer, and then polish it off with coffee and cream puffs. No big deal. Also, the incredible foie a la plancha:

This particular specimen was collected and consumed at La Cuchara de San Telmo, a fantastic pintxos bar in San Sebastian with one of the worst websites I have ever seen. Anyways, it was accompanied by a nice little pool of some kind of apple preserve (basically fancy European apple sauce), some sea salt, and a nice little swirl of obligatory extra virgin olive oil. And oh my god.

I will try my best to explain foie to the uninitiated because before this trip, I thought that it was just paté from happier ducks/geese. NOPE! Foie gras comes in a variety of levels of quality, ranging from the kind you get in a can that is only a certain percentage of force-fed duck or goose liver, to the really really awesome stuff which is literally just a liver of a duck or goose that has been fattened via tube feeding its entire life. Poor duck/goose, I know; but lucky me. I would never eat liver in the U.S. just because I imagine 7th grade biology and all the fun images that might conjure up for any person, and also because any paté I’ve ever tried before this trip (even paté of foie gras) just kiiiinda tastes like cat food to me. BUT THIS. This is different. Imagine the most succulent, flavorful, sinful piece of food you have ever eaten, then stick it on a grill to get the edges a little crispy, then put it and all its delicious juices into a pool of subtly sweet apple compote and eat it with  some nice bread. I’ve also tried the fois-on-toast iteration at a tiny little tapas bar in Chueca here in Madrid, and honestly…just as good. Just as incredibly, incredibly, good. But, the point of all this is, it’s not healthy. At all. I mean this is the opposite of healthy for you, for the duck with the tube down its throat, just for everyone involved.

But I mean look at that thing! What you may not be able to tell from the picture is that it’s small. That plate is the size of the plate you’d get your dinner roll on and the foie itself is the size of a meaty little cell phone (I apologize to the world for not being able to think of a better comparison). It’s bad for you–it’s oh so bad for you–but it’s small and genuinely totally enjoyable. I savored every last bit of that thing, even towards the end when I was starting to think about it too much and get creeped out. And that is what makes the bad foods here different from the bad foods I am used to. The bad foods here are really good.

I still think it’s unfair to generalize about the evils of the American  diet versus the virtues of the Mediterranean/European, but I think I can really see why Europeans will so genuinely defend their eating habits as being so much healthier than Americans’, even with a caña and plate of deep fried fish in hand. They eat to enjoy, to pass time with friends, to have something to do for hours and hours and hours. We eat to eat, to get energy in, to satisfy a craving, whatever, but rarely do I see people sitting for three hours at a restaurant in the U.S. without getting dirty looks from the entire waitstaff.

I went out to lunch here with Marshal the other day because I wanted a menu del día. He was tired and we decided to do an early lunch so we could fit in a pre-train siesta. We ate our two courses and our dessert and were basically the only people in the restaurant when we walked in at one. At the end of the meal, which lasted just over an hour and included salmorejo, risotto, chicken, lamb stew, a kiwi, berry cheesecake, and two beers, the waiter said to me “You guys eat really early and really fast!”

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“Influential farmers’ group Asaja recently said that 40 percent of the olive crop has been lost in southerly Jaen province, which alone produces more oil than any other country bar Spain itself and Italy.

February this year was the wettest in 30 years in Spain and heavy rains caused severe flooding as many rivers burst their banks in southern Spain.”

“Spain Output Rises,” Olive Oil Times, March 20, 2010

Glad I stayed down there just long enough to catch the WETTEST FEBRUARY THE COUNTRY HAS SEEN IN 30 YEARS. And yes, there really is an Olive Oil Times.

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Primavera

Last week, spring sprang. It was as if I came to Madrid and the powers that be decided that all was right in the world and it was time to end the most dreadful winter since the dawn of Spanish time with a glorious week of sudden, sparkling, flowery, gorgeous sunshine. The tree above is one of many that pepper the streets of Sanse (and a few parts of the centro) and they are my absolute favorite things ever. I have now decided that in my future home, I will not only have an olive tree, but also one of these babies. There are a couple varieties of trees with pretty pink or white flowers, and I saw them in Jaén too, both as city decor and in orchard-form, so I am not sure if they have all been almond or dogwood or cherries or what. I am going to go with almond, but mostly because I love the idea of having an almond tree. The only thing that is not wonderful about them is that the one pictured above was literally swarming with those enormous black glossy beetles, so I had to run the heck away from that tree immediately after taking the picture.

So back to spring. We had about a week of it, during which I walked through Retiro, lazed around on  benches, sat in the sun, and even TOOK OFF MY JACKET, and then it was over. Two days ago I was in the park with Bruno, and all I can say is luckily it was really close to home. The clouds were a little dark and the wind was picking up, but it had been so nice that I couldn’t believe it was going to rain. Then it got seriously dark, a few drops sprinkled gently down. I told Bruno we had to go, and as I was walking over to get him into his stroller, ONE enormous clap of thunder just ripped open the sky and spilled down an entire week’s worth of rain in about 20 seconds. I shoved Bruno into the stroller, he was screaming, I pulled this rather cumbersome plastic thing over the whole top of him, strapped him in, and started running. It probably took 45 seconds to get packed up and get back to shelter, but I was completely soaked and dripping. Bruno just looked grossed out.

And the weather has sucked since. Dark clouds, icy wind, no sun. Screw winter. Here are some pictures of what Spain should look like right now, taken last week, which I now really believe was my one glorious glimpse of good weather. Wa!

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après moi le déluge

Welp, I told them. And it wasn’t as hard as I thought. Well, it was hard, but their reaction wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The only one that interrogated me was my roommate, but the teachers were totally understanding. I even cried a tiny little tear at the colegio (primary school).

And now, as I sit here in the colegio computer room next to about eight buckets slowly filling with rainwater that is dripping through the roof, I realize that my leaving is for the best, since if this rain continues at this rate, there won’t be a La Puerta de Segura anymore. Ok, so that is probably not true, but I did walk down to the river again yesterday to see how the flood possibilities were looking, and let’s just say that water was WAY higher than before. And all the goats and mules and horses that normally roam around the side of it were gone. And the water was pure mud brown. They were saying on the news that the water in many villages in Jaén is now unsafe to drink because so much mud and dirt and other unsavory things have floated into the rivers that they are having to truck fresh water in. I have not seen any of these trucks so instead I bought two liters of tropical fruit juice and have not touched the water.

They also said that this season has already brought more than double the rainfall of last winter, and according to the people who I talked to at the beginning of my time here, last winter was one of the wettest on record. That explains why my room in Baeza, the classroom I am sitting in now, and the bathroom in my La Puerta piso are all covered in awful, disgusting mold. I told my landlady about it in Baeza and she said it is normal (it is NOT normal, it is really awful), and that I should just buy some bleach and clean it. Ok. In La Puerta, our amazing landlord Jose came over and had it cleaned off immediately. He is like 5498 years old. He used to be a carpenter so he also fixed our broken brasero. He is great.

Anyways, I feel like I am abandoning La Puerta to its fate of being swept away in a terrifying, brown, swirling flood, filled with an assortment of goats, pieces of moldy apartments, and olive harvesting machinery. I don’t wish it any harm, in fact I wish it the best of luck, but I can’t say that I am super sad that I won’t have to walk a mile every day in this weather anymore, or that I won’t have to worry about my ceiling leaking (fingers crossed), or that the metro is UNDERGROUND where the rain can’t hit it. Today is the last Friday I will ever spend in La Puerta. This weekend is my last in Baeza, and Tuesday marks the start of my very last week of being an auxiliar. More to come.

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Plein Soleil

I am officially over winter. I am trying to boycott by wearing lighter coats and fewer layers each day but it turns out that’s not exactly helping, and if I continue the practice I might not make it to the spring.

To be honest, it has been getting warmer, but that still means that it is 42 degrees outside (and inside my apartment) right now and I am currently sitting in my bed in a sleeping bag because my normal blankets are not warm enough and we (meaning my roommate) used up all the gas for the heater last month. Normally I am all over cold weather, but it’s a different story when you don’t have a heater or rugs or sweatshirts. And I’ve learned the hard way that a hairdryer and a couple of votive candles are not worthy stand-ins for central heating.

Anyways, the momentary peek of sunlight this week has gotten me all crazy about the coming summer and the possibility that I will be able to savor some nice weather while I am here in Europe. When I think of nice weather in Europe, I pretty much think of two things: the beach and Plein Soleil.

Plein Soleil, (Purple Noon in English) is the 1960 French film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and to put it simply, I think it is wonderful. Honestly, the part that I think is most wonderful is how perfectly it captures EXACTLY the time and place I would like to time travel to if I could time travel my way into a summer vacation, minus the third-wheel setup on the boat, and the jealousy, betrayal, and murder without remorse, of course…but I won’t give away the ending for those of you who haven’t yet indulged! I will however, show you some lovely stills from the movie, most of which are all of Alain Delon. I would have preferred a few shots of the incredible, beautiful yacht they sail around the Mediterranean in, or of the coastal town in Italy where most of the movie takes place, but it seems this Delon fellow has a pretty popular mug and those other images do not exist (in Google images). But Mr. Delon isn’t exactly hideous so I don’t think anyone will mind.

The colors, the clothes, the hair (ok I would change Marge’s bangs, but whatever), the boat, pretty people speaking French–Italy when it was probably really cheap!–I just want everything!!!!! I seriously have rented this movie several times, and every time I see it I feel like I don’t really watch it, I just look at it. I need to just buy it already.

And do you blame me? Who would not want to sail around Europe, tanning and eating French cheese and lounging on the deck of a splendid sailboat in nautically themed outfits, napping in a fluffy pink Italian bed, casually strumming the guitar in your lovely, sunny salon? I certainly want to! Throughout the movie, you can just tell that it is hot, and I mean that in the temperature sense of the word (mostly). It just makes you want to be outside in the sun, and frankly, that is ALL I want to do right now. And maybe eat some cheese.

If I were to have access to this wonderful, beautiful world, I would have to momentarily move it to Croatia, which embodies the beach part of my summer dreams of Europe.

Amazing!!! Despite the fact that I may no longer have time to travel at the end of my trip, I am holding onto the hope that I will be able to lay on a beach like that in Croatia in the very, very hot sun at some point in June, with or without the sailor clothes and yacht and pretty French people. I’ve been once before, and I think I’m just about due for a second visit.

But for now, I will stay cuddled in my sleeping bag in my little cold bed, eating cookies and drinking tea. ¡Date prisa, verano!

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