The eye of the storm

Since the beginning of quarantine two weeks ago it has been very calm here in Rome.  Somewhere else the virus has been raging and people are having their loved ones in coffins being removed by the army.  Somewhere else people are fighting in supermarkets over the last rolls of toilet paper, and somewhere else shelves of supplies are disappearing at a great rate.  Somewhere else politicians are dismissing, ranting, raving, telling everybody that all is well, while trying to give this sickness a nationality.

Here the birds are loud and their song is bright, and it is heard all day long.  The shushing sound of the traffic that reminds me of my seaside city home and the sounds I fell asleep to as a child, is silent.  On windless nights, which these have mostly been, not even a grain of dirt moves on the roads and footpaths that surround my apartment block.  The moon is huge and shines out through the leafless trees each night mocking me in my sleeplessness – too much light and too much silence – both stimulants for my body.  During the day the unfolding drama and constant mental activity of processing, associating, cataloguing and adapting taking place, on top of a usual work load and the daily running of a household, have put me in overload and I have difficulty shutting down.

But outside, my environment is eerily quiet.  The usually busy streets full of traffic, children, motorbikes, delivery men calling to each other, the gardeners with their leaf blowers, the actors from the theatre next door who rehearse on the street and sometimes in our communal garden, the portiere (caretaker) who calls out to people as they leave and enter all day, none of this is happening. The shoppers, the unemployed, the elderly, the mothers, the shop keepers, café owners and workers who stroll outside during their lunch hour, who all usually fill the streets, are not there.

The silence and the inactivity are overwhelming. Even the dogs are quiet.  There is nothing to bark at.

Occasionally someone scurries by, head down, mask on, always alone, and sometimes wearing plastic gloves. If we meet coming towards each other we each take a side of the footpath and veer past each other, sometimes with cheery eye contact, sometimes not.  I can sleep without ear plugs for the first time in two decades.  I can rest during siesta listening to the wind if there is some, and now the birds are so loud they keep me awake. Sometimes I can even hear bees.  Blossom rains down along empty streets, sunlight pours over still piazzas, cats lazily stroll across them and I don’t bother to look either way when I step onto a road.

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There is music everywhere though, loud and blasting from speakers but also being played from pianos, guitars and keyboards, much more than usual.  None of us are comfortable with the silence.  We are all used to the noise that surrounds us daily and reminds us we are part of a huge city and that although we may be alone in an apartment we only have to open a window to know we are part of a community.

Now we have to shout out to each other to remind ourselves of that, and so we do.  Each night at six we join together on balconies and at windows to make noise, to combat the silence that says we are a city that is in lock down, in mourning, in fear and dread for what may come.  Each night we gather to shake off the silent day and break it up from the silent night and remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are here, all here, all here in this together. We sing and shout and clap from our silent siloes and rebel against our quarantine from each other and this is how we are able to be patriots and our usual anarchic selves both at the same time. This is how we are able to be in this storm, in its eye, all together.

Piazza Navona Day

For many years what determined where I lived was whether it was possible to have coffee in Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s loveliest renaissance piazzas, whenever I wanted.  It meant that Rome was always top of the list. Today is a Piazza Navona Day.  It’s a day I regularly set aside to do nothing much except sit in Piazza Navona and drink a coffee.

Like magic a bus appears as soon as I leave my apartment, it whisks me away and in 20 minutes I am in the very heart of Rome. The Capitoline hill, where the Roman Empire, once extending as far as England and Egypt, was governed and is still governed from today.  I salute Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor in bronze on his horse at the top of the staircase in Michelangelo’s square, guarding the spot where the temple to Jupiter received sacrifices and spoils from Roman conquests. I wander slowly along Rome’s main street lined with palaces now housing banks and insurance companies – providing the same service as the noble families who once inhabited them did.

At Piazza Navona I spy a table in the morning winter sunshine, draped with dense cream linen and standing on some ancient cobbles.  I point to it and politely ask the waiter if it is OK to take that one. Although my Anglo Saxon looks can never pass for Italian, my accent and language can, so I get the usual quizzical (are you a tourist or not?) stare as I order my cappuccino ‘ben caldo, con poco latte, niente cacao’ very hot, with less milk than usual and without chocolate on the top.  It comes so hot and strong that it will take me an hour to drink it – just what I need.

Although we are deep in the middle of winter, the sun is shining brightly and warming the top of my head.  No wind reaches this piazza, protected from the river breezes and tucked well into a ring of medieval and renaissance palaces. I hear the constant falling of plentiful water in the fountain nearby, designed by Bernini in 1650 to represent the four great rivers of the time.  The gigantic statues of four men that depict each river lean out from around a huge Egyptian obelisk, stolen from Cleopatra, which pierces the bright sky with a Christian cross.  The fountain sits on top of the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian’s chariot racing track.  Here is Rome in a nutshell, or a fountain – marble statues, flowing water, stolen treasures, sports arenas and empires one on top of another. A great unbroken line of humanity in this very place; people who loved, laughed and cried right here; people who thought their worlds were about to end and those who thought they would never end.

At the table across from me a woman and man, well advanced in their journey through life, soak up the sun and sip their coffee talking about a family lunch this weekend.  I have always admired these Roman women. When I first arrived in Rome in the 1990’s they wore floor length fur coats, glittering jewelry and hard cased Prada handbags wherever they went.  The fur coats are now mostly gone but this woman stands up and puts on an ankle length carmine red wool coat with matching colored Prada backpack, her jewelry catches the sun and makes her whole body sparkle.  She looks so cheerful and benevolent, and I wonder when I can expect to transition from cranky and sweaty to cheerful and benevolent. After we retire says my husband.

 

Watching this couple, I can’t wait, I feel like I am always chasing after a life that is just ahead of me – just out of reach and disappearing as quickly as I gain on it.  A life of old Rome, of women in fur coats, and men in hats, of unhurried conversations with family and friends, of quiet winters with no tourists, of freezing Februaries with no sun, of deserted summers where the city shuts down, and doesn’t exist online, and a country where no one speaks anything but Italian. Coming up fast behind me, pursuing and almost engulfing me is another life, full of a younger generation I don’t want to be, and a fast paced, hurried life that I don’t want.

The huge bells of Saint Agnes in Agony ring out deafeningly and I feel my entrails turn to water as a Roman senator would say.  They ring out an ancient stone sound that makes me want to cry; young laughter from the table of girls behind me overlays it – ancient and new, sorrow and joy, pain and the exquisite gift of being, mingle together. The sound fades away slowly and I am in the present again with my faint headache and feet that feel the uneven cobblestones beneath them.  I am home for now and will give myself another ten minutes to sit in the sun and enjoy my here and now life, exactly between the other two.

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The Roman Summer

 

It is hot.  Hot, hot, hot. Yesterday my husband phoned me from his car at 8.30 am to tell me it was already 30 degrees with high humidity, and warned me to be prepared.  As if I wasn’t already prepared.  It has been hot since the end of May.  It is now the middle of August.

One of the challenges of a Roman summer, besides its length and temperatures, is that Romans don’t really believe in air conditioning. Air conditioners have only been readily available on the Roman market since the early 2000’s and until recently many apartments, shops and restaurants did not have it. Many Romans believe that air conditioning is bad for you, mostly because of an in-built and ancient fear of fever, in particular death by fever, a reality in the ancient past for many citizens of Rome.  They believe that air conditioning will cause fever because of the severe changes in temperature that will result, and that it is unhealthy to have cold air blown on you.

They have a point.  Going from an air conditioned location to the fierce heat of a Roman summer is not a pleasant experience. And this is part of the charm of Rome. It retains its ancient beginnings and mixes them in with its post-industrialism. So these days most public places, including public transport, will have air conditioning on AND the windows open.  “So it doesn’t get too air conditioned”, is generally the answer I get when I ask bus drivers or proprietors why this is.

Rome as a city has had thousands of years of dealing with the heat without it. It is a city that moves outside to catch cool breezes and shady areas. And living in a city which doesn’t air condition the seasons away means you have to live within them.  Adjust your routine, your activities, your diet and your lifestyle to accommodate and move within them.  Romans have been doing this for centuries.  It is only us foreigners who insist on living the same kind of lifestyle for twelve months of the year and are outraged if our productivity slows down.

Rome is not a city governed by trade and commerce.  At 3.00 pm in the afternoon even if you had a million dollars you couldn’t spend it.  No sane commercial trader would try and out compete his competitors by staying open during the siesta, and in fact it is mostly illegal. But why bother when there will be plenty of trade at 5.00 pm when the siesta is over?  Why bother when you can make money AND see your family, make love all afternoon, let your gorgeous lunch digest, prevent a heart attack, have a nap in the middle of the day.  Rome runs on the seasons and on tradition.  And I love it for those reasons.

No one except me is in Rome in the middle of August.  Really.  My whole suburb has shut down.  I have to have my coffee at home as none of the dozens of little cafes serving Romans their daily coffees are open.  Why would they be?  All the Romans have gone on holiday to the seaside or the mountains.  I have another two weeks before going on holiday and I had a long list of things planned but instead I find that the heat exhausts me after around two hours of activity, and all the other things I had planned can’t be done because nothing is open.  I have to wait until September to get my hair cut for example.  Our phone handset died yesterday due to battery failure but we have to wait until September to get a new one. My work suits sit in a pile by the door as I didn’t manage to get them to the dry cleaners before the start of August. My husband can’t go shopping for T-shirts to wear on our holiday as all the clothing shops are shut for two weeks, and thank goodness one of the two supermarkets are open otherwise food would be a bit of a problem too.

But it it is peaceful.  So peaceful.  The quietness of an abandoned city is refreshing, and worth staying in it for.  I love August in Rome.  It is the only time I have the city to myself.  I can wander around unhindered by traffic, human and mechanical.  It takes half the time to get anywhere and I can stop and look at anything without fear of being run over.  It is quiet at night and quiet during the day.

It is a time to stop, to slow down, to contemplate and relax.  The cities work-a-day functions are not available so it forces you to rest in parks, laze by pools, look at flowers and bathe in the sea.   It forces you to take the mental and physical break that nature is taking, a rest before the next seasons’ activities.  It is a time of substituting ice-cream for lunch or dinner, for long siesta’s while outside the afternoon bakes away in silence, not a leaf stirring, as even nature tries to keep cool by not moving. It is a time to enjoy the silky evening air on your skin, to sweat out toxins and negative energy, to wear loose clothing and move languidly, in sync with the city.

Rome is a built of stone and water.  Clean, free, cold water gushes continually out of drinking fountains by road sides and in parks all over the city.  It comes from underground springs in the countryside around Rome and is pumped in using the ancient aqueducts built by the Romans.  Now that’s something a post-industrial city doesn’t have.   It is enough to rest under a tree, stand on a cold stone and drink or splash the water over you to cool down and enjoy a Roman summer.  Who needs air conditioning after all?

Contact me for one of my private tours in the Tour page on this website or my Facebook page – Roman Daze

Read more in: ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons’, Melbourne Books, 2013

Available at all bookstores nationally within Australia, Otherwise Bookstore Rome, and via Amazon, Kobo and ibooks.

http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389659611&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

 

Walking tours of Rome

Hi all,

For those of you who missed this I wanted to show you the new page on this blog which contains my new private walking tours of Rome! Check it out for your next trip, live vicariously, or share it with your friends who you know are traveling to Rome.

https://brontejackson.com/tours/

 

What my dad knew about Italy

What my dad knew about Italy

would not fill a book.  However………..

When I first moved to Rome he began speaking to me in Italian …….

“Where’s the wheelbarrow?”, he would ask, when I phoned him.

“Is it in the elevator?”, and

“Hello, beautiful girl.”

These were the only three phrases he knew and it revealed his history of having worked with Italian labourers on building sites.  (He told me once that what Italians didn’t know about concrete wasn’t worth knowing.) As the Project Manager he needed to be able to ask them these questions  and many of them didn’t speak English.  He also heard them often trying to chat to women passing by.  I never knew my dad could speak Italian, or how much he liked it until I began living there, and he gleefully repeated all his known phrases to me every time we spoke.

My dad first encountered Italy as a young man on honeymoon in the early 1960’s.  He and my mother arrived by ship from Melbourne, Australia, along with hundreds of Italians returning home to look for brides and for family visits.  They docked at Naples.  Dad said he had never seen men cry until that moment.  He said the ship erupted with crying men, hours out of Naples, as soon as they could see land, and that the crying didn’t stop for hours until they docked and were met by crying mothers.  He was very impressed with how manly Italians could be and yet how much they could cry.

As an engineer my dad was very interested in buildings, art, furniture, design.  All the things Italy offered an abundance of.  He and my mother toured around the major cities, he documenting everything in slides – the Duomo in Milan, the Vatican in Rome, the canals of Venice and the Bay of Naples.  His love of design shows through in each of his photographs.

Several decades later when my dad and my step mother visited me once in Rome, we stopped in a piazza in front of the Pantheon, a beautiful, round Roman temple, right in the centre of the modern city of Rome.  We took a seat at an outdoor cafe.  The waiter arrived and my dad asked for a drink I had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce, even though I spoke fluent Italian and he didn’t.  The waiter responded in the affirmative and without a glance backwards took off and brought back what ended up being an alcoholic, cherry liquor in a tall glass with soda water, and a blob of vanilla ice-cream floating in it.   Something he’d remembered that he had drunk last time he was in Rome, in 1960.

He told me that one of the saddest days of his life was after that first trip when he and my mother arrived back in Australia, after spending over six years travelling and working in Europe and Asia  (during which time my brother and I were born in Malaysia).  He loved the influences of Europe and Italy, and felt Australia was very quiet and very far away when he first came back.  He was completely understanding of my need and desire to stay and live in Italy and encouraged me to stay as long as I liked.  He told me that he could walk around a piazza every day and not get bored but that once he had seen somewhere in Australia once it was enough for him.  It never entranced him the way a European city could.  I felt the same.

Growing up I remember Dad was very popular with his Italian employees, so much so that they gave him gifts of live birds, home-made salami’s and other incredibly smelly foodstuffs, cakes, eggs and tomatoes.  Once I came home from school to find mum in a bad mood and a strange Italian bloke in our back yard hammering together a cage for the doves he had brought over for my father.

“What are we going to do with those?”, she asked my father.  “We don’t know anything about birds!”

“It’s a sign of respect, darling.  He wants to give them to me.  I have to accept them.”

Dad provided a huge party for his builder’s labourers at Christmas with as much beer and food as they could eat.  He also gave them money from his own pocket when they needed it.  Once it was to pay the funeral costs of a labourer who had died at a work site he also worked at.  He loved the exuberant hugging and kissing and emotional displays he got included in as one of them.  He never lost his fascination for Italian men and their camaraderie from the moment he had that first experience on the ship with them.

He loved that my Italian husband Alfredo, called him Giovanni (Italian for John), and taught him even more words in Italian.

“How are you?  I’m good thanks, how are you? I speak Italian.  Do you speak Italian?”  He would repeat over and over, every time he saw my husband.  He plied Alfredo with dozens of questions every time he got the opportunity.

“What’s the name of the football team based in Turin?  Where is the city with the round, white houses?  What dialect do you speak?  How far is it from Bari to Brindisi? Do Italians eat much meat?”

He never lost his interest in or passion for history, geography and all things Italian, and treated Alfredo as though he was a living specimen of a culture he found endlessly entertaining and inspiring.  His daughter (me) who was actually a Social Anthropologist he never asked anything of.  I wondered if he knew anything about the depth of my knowledge and association with Italy, the country I had lived and worked in for 17 years.  I sent him postcards and wrote him emails with photos of everywhere I travelled, long before I met Alfredo.  One day he got out a huge Atlas to confirm a conversation we were having, just the two of us, about a certain part of Italy.  It fell open naturally at those pages and I saw inked in lines drawn all over Italy and other places I had visited.  He had traced my journeys and plotted them all on the maps in the Atlas, using the postcards and emails I had sent him.

He understood my need and desire to live there but when I was back in Melbourne, towards the end of his life, he often expressed anxiety at the thought of me returning.  Last year we were shopping for some dinning furniture and took him with us.  We were in an Italian furniture design shop whose headquarters was in the south of Italy, the region Alfredo is from.  As I touched the furniture I sighed and indicated how much I missed it.  He turned to Alfredo and said in a menacing but joking way “No, she is not allowed to go back now.”  My blood ran cold as the thought of disappointing him hit me.  Returning was always an option for me.

My dad passed away 1 month ago.  In those last days of palliative care, I sat and held his hand and looked in his eyes and told him I loved him and heard him say it back.  Whenever Alfredo spoke to him and called him Giovanni, he responded with a smile and tried to speak in Italian back.  I am glad I don’t have to disappoint my dad by returning to a country I love.  I am glad I am now free to go.  And I am glad I returned to Melbourne, to spend these last years with him.

I am glad I inherited his love and passion for travel, for history, for geography and for learning about new languages and cultures and I will always take him with me where ever I go.

Vale, Giovanni, Vale.

 

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Roman Daze – From notes to first draft

http://www.the-art-of-writing.com/2016/01/from-notes-to-first-draft-with-bronte-jackson/

How does a writer go from an idea/passion about Italy to writing a book about it?

Lisa Clifford is an internationally acclaimed author of many novels and non-fiction/historical books on Italy, her adopted country. Here she interviews me about how/why I came to write ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons.

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How to enjoy a Roman Autumn (Fall)

Autumn is a great season to visit Rome in because the city is fresh, crisp and relaxed.  The weather is a perfect and steady 24 degrees with sunny, blue skies.  The blistering heat has finished, the colder months have not yet started, and the rain of spring is far away.  Romans have returned from their summer holiday months and are tanned, cool and refreshed; ready for work, and if that includes the tourist trade then the service is much better than you would get in the baking hot and crowded summer months.  There are also fewer tourists as most of the Northern hemisphere has taken their holidays and have returned to work.  Airline tickets cost less; everything is open, and the city is back to business.

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Here are my top ten tips for how to enjoy a Roman Fall/Autumn.

1.  Plan to walk a lot.

Autumn is perfect for walking (as is the city of Rome).  It rarely rains, is not too hot, and the sunshine and blue skies set off the rich colours of the city and its monuments perfectly.

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2.  Visit a park (Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, Villa Pamphili)

Sunshine will filter in through the green foliage of the summer growth making any park seem cool, lush and shady.  But there will also be evidence of the season, with colours changing to yellows and browns and crunchy leaves underfoot. Tracks will be dry and easy to walk on, summer mosquitos will have gone and the air still warm and balmy.  A Park is the perfect accessory for autumn.

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3.  Visit the Municipal Rose Gardens of Rome.

Internationally acclaimed and featuring over 1,000 varieties of roses they are still blooming ferociously in autumn.  Although not publically listed as open in autumn (they are only open officially for a few weeks in May and June), I was walking past the other day and they were definitely open and being visited.

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4. Don’t go to the beach.

As tempting as it maybe for some of you from colder climes who don’t get much opportunity to go,  the beach will generally be shut in autumn in Rome.  Romans are seasonal creatures and will finish going to the beach at the end of summer (21st September), no matter what the temperature.  Most beaches are privately run and are fenced in and will be closed due to lack of clientele.

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5. Don’t look as though you are going to the beach.

Likewise if you are still wearing shorts and sandals in autumn it will be noticed.  My summer clothes were noted and commented on a few weeks ago in my neighbourhood in an unfavourable manner by a fellow customer at my local café.  There is a season for everything in respectable Roman society, and in September to December it is autumn, and the attire that represents that (closed shoes, longer trousers, jeans, layers, light cardigans, cotton scarves, etc.).

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6. Shop for last season’s cloths.

Many shops, though not in the trendiest parts of town, will still have remnants of their summer stock, from cloths to bags.  As no self-respecting Roman would be seen dead in the colours, fabrics, or shoes of summer, the prices are rock-bottom and on offer to the tourists who are the only people that will buy them.  Stock up!  Rome’s last seasons’ stuff is what the rest of the world will be wearing in a years’ time.

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7.  Eat seasonal delicacies – Funghi Porcini, Puntarelle, Carciofi alla Romana, Roasted Chestnuts.

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Funghi Porcini are large flat mushrooms that taste earthy, nutty and quite unique. They are one of my favourite things to eat, made all the more special by the fact they are available for only a few months of the year.  I recommend eating them grilled and as a stand-alone dish. They don’t require any other accompaniment than bread and the fresh green olive oil, parsley and garlic they will be cooked with.  Most people are hooked after one taste.  If you are a bit shy and need to dilute your first experience then I recommend ordering the Tagliatelle ai Funghi Porcini, a thick egg noodle/pasta delicately flavoured with fine slices of Funghi Porcini.

Puntarelle (little points) is a vegetable dish.  They look and taste a little like celery but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

Carciofi, artichokes are a Roman speciality in general but prepared alla Romana is even more typically Roman.  Again it is ordered as a vegetable dish and will come as a single, large artichoke soaking in its own cooking juices of lemon, mint, garlic, parsley and boiling water and garnished with olive oil.  It is magnificent!

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Roasted chestnuts will be available on every street corner in the centre of the city.  Roasted over a coal fire you can buy them in small paper scoopfuls.  They are warm, nutritious, richly filling and slightly sweet.  They make a perfect snack or an excellent (and very cheap) breakfast along with a coffee.

8. Sit in the sun.

It is one of the best recreational activities of the year.  Winter it is too cold to sit still outside, summer it is too hot to sit in the sun, spring is unpredictable.  Autumn has long, lovely, warm days full of a sunshine that caresses without burning, stimulates and sooths, tans and smooths, gently washing away negative and stressful thoughts.

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9. Watch the sun set.

The sunsets of autumn fill the sky with brilliant reds, oranges and yellows that blot out clouds and pollution and linger on for hours.  It is as though the sun needs to go out with a bang in its last season of dominance; that it needs to remind us all of its majesty so that we don’t forget its importance and power as we live through the winter months.

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10. Go to a Vineria.

If Parks are the perfect accessory for autumn and sun sitting the perfect recreational activity then the Vineria is the perfect resting place.  The evenings that darken early, and the slight chill in the air when they do, force you inside at a time usually too early to eat but perfect for the partaking of a little wine, cheese and salami – the trifecta of the Vineria.   Vinerie serve only that (although some can also entice you with dinner once you have settled in), and from around early evening (just before sunset).  They specialise in an exhaustive range of wines and usually have shelves of bottles that line the walls from floor to ceiling as part of their decor.  Cheeses and salamis will be offered that match the wine you choose, and the small, cosy and intimate nature of these establishments will make you glad that you chose your sojourn to Rome to correspond with the magnificent season of autumn!

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