On Letting Go & Floating On:  Musings from a Chronic Traveler

At lot has changed with me this week: I got married! The Novio and I finally said our Sí, quieros (albeit in English) in a bilingual, bicultural fiesta. In the US for the rest of the month, I’m gearing up to say adiós to a potential life in America and hello to a future in Spain.

There, I finally said it.

Danni, another Chicagoan-turned-española and a part of Las Morenas de España, sent me this article that I found myself nodding to. Do we have to say goodbye constantly to say hello to what we really want and maybe even need?

guest post by Danni melena

I’m a chronic traveler. I’ve said “hello” and “good-bye” more times than I can count. The issue lies in the fact that I spent so many years holding onto my “home”, Chicago, because I was afraid that if I loosened my grip even in the slightest, I’d lose it forever. I felt my heart being pulled in several different directions spread out all over the globe, but I felt that if the anchor that held me to home budged even a little bit, that I’d have to address the fact that I see home in several places.

I tried to keep one foot in Chicago, and the other wherever my plane or train landed next, and I came to the realization that it’s hard. I assumed that the more time and distance I placed between myself and “home” the blurrier the memories, the weaker the connections and the further I’d drift out into open water. Little did I know that “home” is fluid, and that by allowing myself to drift ever so slightly, I don’t necessarily lose a home, but gain the ability to feel at home wherever I am.

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On Saying “So Long” in order to Say Hello:

That’s the funny thing about traveling: in order to say “hello” to someone, or some place new, you must first leave where you are, and that’s not always the simplest thing to do. It’s never easy taking those first steps to venture away from the comfy, cashmere snuggie that is your “now” and leave.

Whether you jumped from the cliff on your own will while screaming “Viva Wanderlust”, or you inched your way slowly with the help of family, friends, and travel-inspiration on Instagram, you did it. No matter how you arrived, or what made you leave: I commend you. You are brave. You are strong. You’ve done what others talked themselves out of doing, and spoke louder than the voice in your head, you know, the one that disguises itself as “logic”.  Hello. Hello to you, and welcome.

On Saying Hello:

Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Ni Hao. Hallo. Habari. Shalom. However you say “hello” it means the same thing: I’m here, and I’m opening myself to you and my new surroundings. Even if your voice shakes, hello is an invitation for life to happen and for you to live. At times, hello is tiring, and it’s intimidating and it’s daunting.

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It’s an act of self-assertion. I’m here. It leads into those long conversations with people who start out as strangers and end up as friends. This word—these five letters—are crucial for the chronic traveler because combined with a smile, they can melt any ice. Saying “hello” for me is the first step that opens my heart to a new home, and stretches the ropes that tie me to my first home, where I was born and raised. Hello starts the game of tug-of-war that pulls me from here to there as I travel.

On Getting Situated:

What do you need to feel at home? Do you need familiar faces? Your favorite brand of cookies or candy? Do you need to hear a language that you can understand and speak? Do you need McDonald’s or are you more of a Burger King fan? What makes you feel at home: safe, happy, comfortable and at ease? I asked myself this question several times and this is what I’ve come up with:

  • Food: Vegetarian food, International cuisine, and American-style Brunch make me feel at home. I live on happycow.com because in my opinion, food and positive food experiences line the walls that make “home” for me. Sharing a meal, cooking with strangers in a hostel, shopping in local markets: this is a form of making memories that is essential to my feeling at home and content.
  • Jeans (with at least 2% spandex): I know, that’s really specific, but I mean it. I feel sexy and comfortable in jeans. I’ve lived in 4 countries and traveled to several more, and there is a direct and undeniable link between my ability to find jeans that make me feel my best, and my likelihood to live (happily) in a place. Okay, it’s not just about jeans; it goes a bit deeper. It means being able to shop, and feel like my size and my style is represented. It’s about the fact that I’m halfway across the world, and everything I’ve ever known, and still manage to participate in the mundane act of shopping. I feel those ropes that link me to “home” pull tighter because I realize that what I did there, I can do anywhere and what I’m trying to hold onto so tightly isn’t unique to that one place. That’s a sobering thought.
  • Community: I need community! I need friends, and friendly people with whom I can chat about everything, and about nothing. I yearn to look at my calendar and see that in X amount of days, there’s an event that I’m looking forward to attending, and with people that I genuinely want to see. That’s why I became involved with Las Morenas de España, a site for young, adventurous, WOC interested and/or living in Spain. I want to hug those who arrive at Barajas with looks of confusion, exhaustion and pure adrenaline and tell them that it’ll be ok, and that they’re home. Home, there goes that word again. It gets easier. Now, every time my heart extends its strings to form a new connection with a fellow chronic traveler, I feel my fists loosen and my mind relax slightly, which again, draws me further away from my home base, but I’m learning that’s okay. I tell those who lay down roots in Spain to collaborate, to reach out and to speak up because more likely than not, our narratives will overlap. I found so much in common with other women and travelers on a recent trip to Nantes, France than I ever could have imagined. I try to find community wherever I may travel, even if it’s for a weekend holiday: there are secrets to be revealed, experiences to be had, and people to meet.  Support one another, and build something great. To all the nomads, travelers, self-proclaimed wanderlust-havers: we are stronger together than we could ever be apart. Build. Create. Unite.

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On Saying Good-Bye:

There’s a certain ease and comfort of realizing that home is where you are in that moment. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to loosen my grip, because that’s the only way to make space for new connections and links. The trouble with home is that it cannot be captured and contained. At times I feel pulled in a million different directions: Portugal, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Spain, America, France, Germany; all of these places, and the people I was blessed to cross paths with left an imprint on my heart. On the other hand, they also pulled the rope away from where I started, where I thought home had to exist.

How foolish I was to think that I could bottle home and keep it stagnant. It’s impossible. It’s unrealistic. Hello’s happen because good-bye’s happened first. With that being said, I’d like to remind you of the most beautiful thing I’ve learned as a chronic traveler: our heart is a muscle. Muscles require that you use them, and the more the use them, the bigger and stronger and more flexible they get. I can say now, with no fear or doubt that I find home—what I love about home—in every experience, new friend, adventure, hello and, the inevitable good-bye.

11822432_10152934229266533_4550720742415852319_nDanni, Community Director at Las Morenas de España, is a twenty-something, Chicago native currently residing in Madrid. Lover of language, words, and travel, she’s managed to combine all of her passions through her work. In her free time, you can find her exploring the winding streets of Madrid, hunting down good flight deals, planning her next adventure and writing & researching for LMDES. Danni loves spicy food, natural hair, music and of course, her wonderful life partner. If you need to find her, she’s the girl with huge hair and her face buried in her Kindle.

A word about Las Morenas de EspañaLas Morenas de España is redefining the Black experience in Spain. With stories, resources and insights and exclusive travel knowledge, Las Morenas is the ultimate destination for anyone with an interest in Spain.  This site is a space for diverse stories to be shared, community to be fostered and for people all over the world to have an inside guide to Spain, inspiring them to experience and enjoy the country in a way they never have before.

Sound off: can you empathize with Danni? 

How Billy Madison Memes Perfectly Describe Wedding Planning

Ah, summer. My most favorite season of the year – beach days, sunshine and sleeping in. And sunburns. Always sunburns.

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And then I decided to plan a wedding one summer and get married the next. My leisurely time off of work soon turned into spreadsheets, frantic phone calls and early morning work outs.

On one particularly stressful afternoon, I turned on the TV during a self-mandated wedding time-out. Billy Madison, easily one of the most quotable movies of all time (or else my childhood), was on, and as Billy struggled to make it through Veronica Vaughn’s third grade class, I felt a kinship. He had to stay sane amidst the O’Doyle clan, devious Eric and the penguin, and I have to stay on top of seating charts and meal selections.

As I head into the last stretch of planning and plotting my big day, Billy’s memes are getting me through:

When Dad announces what your wedding budget will be:

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DIY? Please. Caviar taste on a pauper’s budget.

When you find out your date is open at your top-choice venue.

jackpot

The stars align. I’m serious people.

When vendors try and upsell you their confetti machine / ice sculpture of your head / custom cocktails / something else outrageous, and you’re about ready to plug your ears:

stupid answer

Survival of the fittest in wedding land is all about the bottom line, and mine is Nah NO.

When you get too hangry because your wedding diet sucks all of the fun out of lunchtime.

snack pack

Working with small kids and their bounty of delicious snacks is a terrible way to stick to your diet. It’s cruel.

When your wedding “beauty routine” has you second guessing your personal hygiene (and why you should be coloring your grays, getting hydration treatments and going to the gym twice a day):

shampoo is bettter

I hate you knot.com (and myself).

When you find a way to save money and/or time:

smartest man

When you have to address hundreds of save the date postcards, wedding invitations, thank you notes and place cards:

cursive

Shoulda cut down that guest list.

When you get to the “I just don’t care about this anymore” phase:

good great

My thoughts on cake, programs, transportation and all of those details. OVER them.

When you frantically need answers from vendors and no one is answering your calls or emails:

t t t t t t

 

Time zone, people. 

When you’re trying to track down people who haven’t RSVP’d.

guest list

There shall be payback when it’s your turn by way of missing the deadline. Or maybe with your table assignment.

When it’s time for the Bachelorette Party. Bring on the margaritas, y’all:

steve buscemi

I know this is from the Wedding Singer, but Steve Buscemi was in Billy Madison, and it was this or Nudie Magazine Day.

When you leave it up to other people to buy your trosseau:

get it on

I’m sorry, future husband.

When the first meal after taking off your wedding dress is something so terrible for you:

get me a happy meal

Ok, I cheated again, but I also cheated on my wedding diet, so who cares?

This is, of course, all in jest. I’m crazy excited for Saturday and have been trying to take everything in stride. My vendors have been really helpful, my mom has done a bang-up job in my absence, and my Type A personality has disappeared (well, except when it comes to creating schedules!). 

Onto married life!

Exploring Chicago’s Old Town with the Second City

“You know you’ve really made it when Lorne takes you out to dinner,” Margaret quipped, stopping short for effect while the 25 or so of us leaned in. “I’ve slept with him before, but have yet to get an invitation to dinner.”

She was, of course, talking about Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live Fame. And I laughed. I was at Chicago’s famed Second City, and the satirical, oft raunchy humor was to be expected.

chicao's second city tour

When I was a teenager, I never once complained that my weekend curfew was 10:30 p.m. during the school year – I‘d arrive home, switch on NBC just as the band was finishing up the opening theme and grab a bowl of ice cream. Saturday Night Live was always my Saturday date, and I grew up watching comics like Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan and Molly Shannon personify the immortal Spartans, Mango and Mary Katherine Gallagher.

My friends surprised me for my 18th birthday with a pack of Marlboro Lights and tickets to see a show at the e.t.c. stage of Chicago’s Second City. The show, Pants on Fire, was politically fueled and so hilarious, I had hiccups that my virgin strawberry daiquiri couldn’t cure.

Touring Old Town

Back home this summer, amidst wedding prep, the city of Chicago has become my escape (and my sister just moved back!). When searching for fun things to do with the Spaniards pre-bodorrio, I came across tours of the Old Town Neighborhood with improv artists from the Second City Theatre.

A gorgeous Chicago afternoon, a tour guide that actually had personality and one of the city’s most emblematic cultural pockets? And for $15 a head, it was a Chicago experience I could actually afford.

Tour Writer and Guide Margaret started by asked where we’d come from, adding insult to injury when she found out that my sister and I are from Bibletown and cracked a few jokes (well deserved, I might add). Shockingly enough, there were 10 of us from the hometown crowd and, much like those in attendance on show nights, we were the most vocal during the 90-minute tour.

Improv tours at the Second City Chicago

Margaret herself is a 20-year Second City student who took an improv class. Having a sound knowledge of the theater and its philosophy, the tour started at iconic 1616 N. Wells just like any tour – with the company’s history and its philosophy.

The Second City came to life at the University of Chicago thanks to a few beatniks who used techniques designed by Viola Spolin, a woman who dedicated her life to helping immigrants integrate into mainstream society. The games Viola played, eventually called Theatre Games, sought to relax participants and teach them how to react to different situations, soon became the foundation of improvisational techniques (and the club’s improv school). The Second City opened in the Old Town neighborhood in 1959 under the supervision of Paul Sills, Viola’s son.

Twin Anchors bar Chicago

The tour wound around a few residential blocks, past balloon house frames, old brick churches and local bars. Margaret pointed out favorite haunts of troupe members past, like Bill Murray, who recently stayed behnd to clean up after a Grateful Dead show in town. Like many Chicagoans or people who truly love the city, you keep coming back. She spun tails of some of the more famous alum like Gail Radner and Chris Farley before asking the audience for their favorite members – and then told stories about them.

We got a bit more hisotrical than I expected as we stood under Saint Michael’s bells, but the history lesson intertwined with humor and anecdotes was a winning combination.

scenes from Old Town, Chicago

Old Town is about as Chicago as it gets (and the same can be said about Second City). Being a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of the Loop and in the shadow of the Sears (the skyscraper is a Chi Town original), the neighborhood was burned down during the Great Fire, becoming a vibrant part of the Northside.

“LIKE A PHOENIX!” were Margaret’s words. 

The tour ends back at Piper’s Alley, a mecca to comedy lovers, where you can read hate mail all the way up the stairs to the main stage. But as Margaret mentioned, it’s ok to fail in Chicago. It’s ok to rebuild (or build bleachers outside of the Trump and invite people to watch). It’s ok to keep doing what you’re doing and trust that someone believes in you.

balloon houses in Old Town

And it’s totally fine by us that New York thinks they’re better at everything – it was journalist A.J. Liebling who gave us our famous nickname as a nod to the Big Apple’s superiority anyway. Pizza and hot dogs? Fine, we’ll give those to you so long as you let us keep the lake, our sports and the best damn improv theatre in North America.

The Second City Neighborhood Tours are held rain or shine every Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. Expected to walk about two miles, and bring your sense of humor. Tickets are $15 and reservations are recommended.

What’s your favorite thing to do in your hometown?

Travel Products Review: Wallpapered Custom Map Canvases

My most beloved home decorations are the small things I’ve picked up from traveling around Europe and más allá – a Chinese zodiac garland I haggled for at a Beijing market, handmade pillowcases from a textile factory in Jaipur, a whittled bull from Slovakia that graces our mantle. And I save every single map of the cities I visit in a shoebox, which is the perfect size and shape for the tattered pages.

Wallpapered Map Canvas

When Rachel from Wallpapered got in touch to offer me a customized map canvas for my home or office, I had an immediate rearranging of our home office to accommodate the 60x60cm print.

In less than two weeks, we’d designed a custom map together and it arrived to my house, mounted on a canvas with a wooden frame.

The process

Rachel had me scour the site for a style, size and finish that I wanted, walking me through the process via email. Based out of London, this company has been transforming blank walls for just a few years with both map canvases and wallpaper, from countries to world maps and beyond.

With so many choices, I went back to the basics – I wanted a map of Spain.

Rachel was with me for every step of the design process – I prodded over colors, vinatge touches, regions and even how to hang the canvas in no less than a dozen emails! Everything was customized to my exact liking, though I’d have loved a vintage-y map (Wallpapered has since added a cool version of Old Castille!).

Close Up of Wallpapered canvas

When we’d settled on a design, Rachel sent the mock-up of everything that would be printed on the map, along with a to-scale picture so I could see just which cities and towns would be included.

The canvas

The canvas arrived literally days later from Blighty, showing up on my doorstep in mint condition.

But shame on me – I didn’t include the Canary Islands!

I dismantled the canvas a bit, pulling out the staples that attached the map to the wooden frame. The materials was pulled flat over sanded wood and came with hooks and instructions on how to hang. Ordering off the Internet can sometimes be a crap shoot (as in, you end up with crap!), but I was impressed with the friendliness of the service-driven staff and how great the product turned out!

Wallpapered Canvas

I’m still debating where to put the map. Just as my bedroom in study abroad had an enormous map of Spain, I’d like our map to be somewhere where I can see it as I plan jaunts around Iberia.

But the map will be put to use before I even head back to Sevilla- we’re naming our tables after places we’ve visited together in Spain! España has been the muse to our bilcultural, bilingual relationship, and she’s taking center stage with our wedding decorations. I’m psyched for our guests to see and read about all of the places where we’ve fallen for one another, and for Spain’s landscapes, villages and vistas.

Wallpapered graciously provided me with my map canvas and its journey to Sevilla free of charge. But don’t worry, if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t write about it! You can find your own map-inspired products on Wallpapered’s product showcase, or work with designers to create a one-of-a-kind piece.

How do your travels figure into your home decor? Leave me some inspiration in the comments!

Photo Post: Ronda and its Picturesque Historic Center

I roused Laura awake. Due to a miscommunication on exactly when her plane touched down in Seville (a day later than I had expected), I was behind in showing her my Spain. I dragged her out of bed, handed her a towel and a mug of coffee and announced Sunday’s destination: Ronda.

Visits to Ronda

Laura had two requirements for a day trip: somewhere quaint and within two hours by car. The beauty of owning a car in Spain – despite being a bottomless money pit – is that destinations that are out-of-the-way or not-traversed-by-public-transportation or too-long-on-the-bus-when-jet-lagged are suddenly on your list.

As the jewel of the typical white villages of Cádiz and Málaga, Ronda and Setenil de las Bodegas were close enough to hit while Laura dozed in the car.

Balconies in Ronda Spain

As the jewel in the crown of Andalucía’s famous pueblos blancos, Ronda hardly qualifies as a pueblo with 35,000 inhabitants. A city made famous in For Whom the Bell Tolls and a favorite hangout of Orson Wells and Washington Irving, it certainly earns its reputation for being one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. I’d visited once in late 2007, long before I knew enough Spanish to enjoy myself, istead stressing over what my family would have for lunch.

But despite its fame and touristic draw, there are still pockets of the city that are devoid of overpriced restaurants and their poorly translated menus, of souvenir shops and of cheesy museums (those things are thankfully clustered around the Puente Nuevo bridge that spans the Guadalevín river gorge). We stopped at a local restaurant, far from the sites, for cheap raciones of huevos estrellados and solomillo as soon as we arrived. Because, jet lag is a bitch and food in Spain is cheap and bountiful in villages.

Elbowing past a few British tourists staggering off a bus, no doubt on a day trip from Málaga capital, we began at the Alameda del Tajo. Rising out of the mountains, the surrounding countryside alternates greens and blues, yellow sunflower fields and stark grain groves.

Ronda countryside

puente nuevo ronda

The Bridge in Ronda

views of the countryside Ronda

Rumor has it that Nationalist sympathizers were thrown to their deaths off of the sides of the bridge, falling 120 meters into the rocky canyon. Laura and I had a coffee after lunch at a nearby café, and as I told her the legend, her eyes grew wide and she backed her chair a little further away from the edge.

But, man, what a view on the way down.

After years of friendship – we’ve known each other since age 14! – Laura and I strolled the Casco Antiguo, catching up on her new job, her upcoming travels and my wedding plans. In a place as old as Ronda with an old friend, everything felt new as I sought to explore Andalucía a bit more.

Ronda Old Town

walking around Ronda

My MUST-dos in Ronda

See: The old part of town is fairly walkable – it’s paved with cobblestones but mostly flat. Be sure to take in the famous bridge, the outside of bullring and the churches and plazas on the east side of the Puente Viejo.

Chow: Food in the Serranía de Málaga is pretty much what you’d expect: hearty meats, stews and plenty of vegetables. We had lunch somewhere on Calle Jerez at a small bar that smelled good, though the roadside ventas are never a bad idea if you’re looking for solid price-quality eats. You can find them on the way in and out of town.

Sip: Have a coffee or drink at the Parador, housed in the old town hall and teetering on the edge of the gorge. It will cost you, but the views of the Puente Nuevo are worth the mark up.

Skip: The old Arabic baths (particularly if you’re going elsewhere in Andalucía) and the bull ring. While gorgeous and the first to stage modern bullfights, the visit isn’t worth the 7€ price tag – spend that money on another beer at the Parador instead!

Have you ever been to Ronda or the Pueblos Blancos? Have car, will travel with my foreign travel slump!

Tapa Thursdays: Five Must-Eat Canarian Dishes

I knew that my travel style had changed when H and I planned our trip to Croatia and Montenegro. After staking out a place to stay, we focused on the most important aspect of our weeklong vacation in the Balkans: what and where to eat.

From celebrated pizza joints to non-descript roadside eateries to a bar with THE BEST VIEW (according to them, and…they weren’t wrong), we spent most of our money on food and drinks. The same happened in La Rioja, India and our business meetings in Seville.

eating cevapi sandwich balkans

My name is Cat, and I’m a culinary travel addict.

I can’t say for sure when it happened, but several of my most treasured memories from travel have been around a dinner table, tucked into the corner of a grubby pub or trying new foods.

Even when I’m in Spain, cuisine becomes a central part of my travels. On recent holidays and breaks to Tenerife, my friends Julie and Forrest made sure that I saw – and tasted – the island’s highlights, starting with a local Tropical beer. And there is more to Canarian cuisine than their pygmy bananas.

Five Must-Eats on the

Mojo Picón

Pronounced moe-hoe, this red sauce is the star of Canarian cuisine and its best-loved sauce. In fact, mojo is a bastardization of the word molho, meaning sauce in Portuguese. My first meal in the Canaries included two mojo varieties on the table instead of the standard garlic and oil. 

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Slather the sauce, which is made of olive oil, salt, water, garlic, peppers and many spices, on meat or wrinkly boiled jacket potatoes called papas arrugás. For a Spaniard, the sauce is spicy. For anyone else, it’s a small kick. Green mojo, however, has an earthy, minty aftertaste and is usually reserved for fish.

Flor de Guía Cheese

Julie met me at the airport and took me promptly around Santa Cruz’s main sites, ending up at a street full of typical bars. We split a cheese plate with typical varieties from around the islands, including the award-winning Flor de Guía cheese (and that’s why it was so costly!).

produce and cheese on Canary Islands

Surprisingly enough, this particular queso is made from both sheep’s and cow’s milk, and juice from thistle blooms help to curdle the milk. The cheese is semi-hard and makes an excellent dessert (or, if you’re me, an excellent anytime eat).

Ropa Vieja

When Julie and Forrest took me to a guachince, I was immediately in love with the makeshift restaurants on family-run wineries. We found our way to La Salud and ordered one of everything.

typical food at a guachinche

In the absence of ropa vieja – a mixed plate of garbanzo beans, meat, potatoes and vegetables – we had a garbanzá. Like puchero or cocido, a plate of ropa veja makes use of whatever is lying around in the kitchen, so recipes vary greatly from one household to the next. I’d liken it to a weekend paella or rice on the mainland.

Gofio

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Gofios are a thing of pride for the canarios, as it forms a large part of their diet and has been eaten on the islands for centuries. Gofio is the word for a flour made from roasted grans and starchy plants, most often wheat or corn plus beans. With a pinch of salt, gofios are usually turned into bread and eaten with seemingly all meals.

Arehucas

I learned about the wonder that is Arehucas honey rum on my first trip to Gran Canaria in 2008. While at a wedding somewhere in the foothills, I pointed at bottles, blissfully unaware of what I was consuming. A yellow-labeled rum stuck out, an entire bottle was consumed with coke as a mixer, and a short-lived love affair was born (I hated that stuff the next day).

Bodas, beach and the boy!

pre-Arehucas buzz in 2008

Spiced rum production is not native to Europe, but Arehucas is distilled in Arucas, Gran Canaria and produces the largest output of rum on the continent. There’s a touch of honey, so the rum can be drunk on the rocks or as an after dinner digestif if you’re hardcore.

Now that I’m happily at home in Chicago, eating my fill of all of my Midwestern favorites and feeling heavier than ever, my next gastronomic adventure will take me to some of America’s best-loved food cities – Memphis, Louisville and New Orleans.

What are your favorite foods from the Islas Canarias? Have you ever been to and eaten in the South? Please share your must-chows!

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