A Shout Out From Across The Pond

Filed under: @ 2:45 am

It took us about a week to finally sort out the whole Internet access thing, including calling our housemate at 11:30pm our time so he could reboot my server. So here, without further ado, is an extra-large, old-tymie super-deluxe posting on our trip so far by Margaret. Pictures to come. -Andrew


Where to start.

First and foremost this keyboard is going to drive me insane. There’s a reason I don’t usually use laptops.


Shawn dropped us off, we breezed through security, found our departure gate and only then figured out that the currency exchange booth is, for some damnfool reason, in the arrival area next to baggage claim.

So I went back. Toting our ready supply of stored up American dollars ($464 for the record. I’ve been saving bits of cash for a long time now.) I went down the escalators from the S gates, along the tram line back to the main terminal, up the escalators to baggage claim and then halfway back along the length of the concourse to find the currency exchange booth which was peopled by what I assume was a congenital moron.

That’s not exactly fair, she seemed pretty reasonable actually, but I gave her my cash, she typed in a few numbers and then told me I could get 220 pounds for $464 or I could get 240 pounds for $500. I didn’t have any more cash so I handed her my Visa and told her to take the extra $36 from my Visa. She obligingly ran my card through the swiper.

And then her machine gagged. Locked up. Froze. As in, 0 Kelvin, frozen solid. There were three international flights that had arrived at baggage claim fairly soon after I had. I was carrying nearly $500 in cash, minutes were ticking away (our flight was due to board at 6 p.m., when I got to the exchange booth the clock on her monitor read 5:15 p.m.) and here is this woman with my Visa, every scrap of cash that I have on me, and my driver’s license and she won’t give any of them back because she says that since she swiped the card there is no way for her to cancel the transaction.

A line started to build up behind me. A line of grumpy, JOJ (Hawaiian pidgin term) international travelers who wanted to exchange their currency into US dollars and get the hell somewhere they could have a hot shower and sleep in a bed.

You know on the TV shows when they’re “showing” someone being given a polygraph exam how they’re always careful to show that the person’s hands are placed flat on the table in front of them so as to allow the examiner to monitor how much tension is in their hands? Yeah, well if someone had been watching my hands, laid on the counter on either side of the sliding drawer in the bulletproof glass, they’d have been able to look at my hands (them or the finger shaped dents in the formica that is) and say…..”HM! Margaret’s under a lot of tension right now!”

And the minutes kept ticking away. I was about to jump out of my skin when she finally made the correct call to the correct person to cancel the transaction from hell so she could count out my cash and let me go. The clock on her monitor read 5:45 p.m.

Did I mention that neither of us saw any reason to bring our cell phones with us? We do have an international cell, but its service didn’t start until we’d landed at Heathrow and I don’t know the number anyway.

I thought I was jumping out of my skin!

Andrew, having been left at the departure gate with our carryon baggage was a wee bit ANXIOUS about where I’d gotten off to. Fortunately I didn’t have any problem getting back through security again and they say that running stairs is great aerobic exercise (escalators were just not fast enough!).

And, just to state the obvious, I got back to the departure gate in plenty of time, the flight started boarding just when they said it would and all was well. Except that I saw a client, an older dude who owns a chocolate Lab (don’t ask me his name, but the dog’s called Godiva) with a camcorder taking home movies of the plane and the line of people waiting at the departure gate. He did board after we did, that is, I don’t suspect he was video taping the plane for any NEFARIOUS PURPOSE, but I did manage to confuse the daylights out of Andrew by doing my duck and cover routine while trying to explain to him through clenched teeth why I was suddenly acting like a lunatic.

The flight was not bad. Not bad in a claustrophobic, desert dry, heavy turbulence at the start sort of way. Cattle car class on British Air is somewhat more humane than cattle care class on, say, Hawaiian, but it’s still close and stuffy, and remarkably uncomfortable. The turbulence didn’t add anything. Y’all will know that I get profoundly seasick. I have never been airsick, but as I get older I think it may start to happen. The next time I do something like this I’m taking an ocean liner. My understanding is that they don’t move (much), and besides if I’m on an ocean liner and seasick, I’ve at least got plenty of space to throw up then lie down and be miserable instead of about thirty six square inches of space and no chance to get to the lav because of the turbulence.

Once we crossed the Rockies into Calgary, things settled down a good deal. I got perverse enjoyment out of watching our progress on the map when I wasn’t trying to sleep or decide what sort of food they were trying to convince us to eat. The food wasn’t bad, but lord it wasn’t good.

My MD had prescribed Halcion pills for me. My understanding is that Halcion is the stuff that they give presurgical patients to keep them from wigging out so that they’re nice and sleepy for the anesthesiologists. I can’t say whether or not I slept. I don’t know that I did sleep, but if I wasn’t sleeping I at least didn’t care that I wasn’t asleep. That is, once the loud Russian guys two seats back, and whistling dude one seat up shut up.

Please pardon the more pointed parts of this commentary. By my current clock it’s still Monday evening even though by local time it’s a quarter of Wednesday. We did nap once we got here, but I wanted to get all this down before I went to sleep so I’m still pretty loopy.

Andrew didn’t sleep on the plane at all so he’s currently crashed out waiting for me to finish with this so he can do whatever he needs to do before he puts the computer away for the night.

Once we hit the ground at Heathrow it was smooth sailing. The “Passport Control” (I love that phrase) agent looked like one of the minor female characters from The Full Monty, the people at Customs asked us if we had anything to declare and waved us through when we said no, and we were first in line at the taxi queue so we leaped right in and drove off.

We did have instructions on how to get here via the tube, but the tube station at the international terminal at Heathrow is closed so we would have had to take a bus to the nearest tube station, take the Central Line tube to the South Ealing Station, and then take a taxi from South Ealing to Maura’s.

It seemed easier just to get in a taxi. By no means less expensive, but SO much more straightforward.

Besides it was kind of cool to go screeching along the motorway (why is it a commonality around the world that local taxi drivers all drive like lunatics?) looking at Great Britain from the top side instead of the Underground. Lovely, very homelike, vegetation, enormous Magpies, and a number of small finches that I’ve not managed to find in our bird book yet. Of course we have a British bird book. It’s lovely, my only regret is that it’s not a copy of Olson’s Standard Book of British Birds (Monty Python reference, sorry, I am quite loopy). And yes, I checked. It’s got gannets and nuthatches in it.

58 Ennerdale Road, Kew Gardens, Richmond Surrey.

This is one section of a large multiplex. Three stories, narrow (only about two rooms wide and two deep that I can see), but tall. This is the ONLY guest room at this guest house, the Old Unitarian Network has really done itself proud in recommending it. We are literally across the street from the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. The street is about two and1/2 cars wide which means that since people are parked along both sides the traffic is almost nil. There are robins bellowing, numerous finches tweedling, starlings, ring neck doves (hey Susan! I’ve got pigeons to chase!). We’re in the flight approach for Heathrow, but the airplane noise won’t bother Andrew or I, it’s quite homey. Hell, right now brass bands aren’t going to keep us awake. The room is spare, but clean with lots of closet space, and the nightstand has a copy of Rick Steves’ London 2006 travel guide along with about two dozen maps, brochures, etc. If there is a bible, I’ve not found it yet.

And Maura makes a mean cup of tea.

Italian for dinner. Good Italian. Fresh made mozzarella on my bruschetta, audible whamming when Andrew ordered veal cutlet. And I’m sorry to say that neither the fact that the carpaccio was raw nor the fact that the veal was, in truth, veal detracted from the enjoyment of the meal. It had been close to 24 hours since either of us had eaten anything resembling real food and it was GOOD.

Fun with British English 5/23/06:

That bag I carry strapped around my waist as a purse is a waist pack. Not a butt pack, and God forbid not a fanny pack. Apparently the word fanny has an other definition in British English. A good thing that I’ve always referred to my purse as a “waist pack”.

Another word with other definitions: stuffed. Apparently it’s a pretty darn rude thing to say to come out of a restaurant and say “man, am I stuffed”.

And if you ask for water someone is likely to ask you “Do you want gas with that?” Um…… no, all I want is water. I was prepared to not automatically have water delivered to my table, but it took me a few minutes to parse that question. Apparently you’re supposed to ask for plain water or sparkling water (i.e. water “with gas”).

Tomorrow we’re going to take the tube into London and ride the ferris wheel.

But now I gotta sleep.

Wednesday 5/24/06

I still dislike this keyboard intensely.

We got a late start. Maura offers breakfast after 0830, and I was up and showered by then. Andrew was still dead to the world when I came back up and decided that I should go back to sleep as well.

I finally managed to boot both of us out of bed at about 11:30, but only for long enough for Andrew to take a shower, eat some breakfast and for me to make the bed. Then we decided to take another nap.

It was a little before 1400 (yeah, I’m going native) by the time we both got it together, got dressed and went out.

Then it started to hail. No shit, hail. Well, truthfully, thunderstorm, then monsoon, then hail.

We went to the Kew Greenhouse Café and had lunch.

We got some entirely unhelpful information from the dude at the tube station regarding travel passes (he said that there weren’t any that were likely to be useful for us whereas the dude at the Victoria tube station gave us some great information about prices, week long passes, and travel options) as well as a pair of what turned out to be one way tickets from Kew Gardens to Victoria which we only found out when I tried to barrel through the turnstile at Victoria on our way back this evening only to be stopped at the midsection by the turnstile gate that refused to open.

Anyway we took the tube to Victoria and hooked up with The Original London Bus tour which was narrated by one of the most engaging lunatics I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He claimed that it was only his first time narrating that particular tour, but the ease with which he rattled off some of the minutiae makes me believe to the depths of my soul that that was just part of his patter. He was claimed to have been a solo European tour guide in a previous job but said he had to quit when one of his tourists tried to murder her husband on his tour and he was then saddled with a paranoid schizophrenic with bowel problems. Man you just can’t make stuff like this up. Anyway we tried it on the top of the bus for a while but it was spitting and still hailing occasionally so we made do on the bottom level which didn’t have nearly as good a view. We also ended up sitting behind another pair of Americans, the female of which had been a program secretary at Evergreen for many years.

So we went round and round and round London, sometimes passing through the same intersection three times. I know we saw Trafalgar Square from three different angles and were told at least twice that the statue of George Washington that is in Trafalgar is sitting on Virginian soil because Washington refused ever to set foot on British soil. There is also, for some odd reason, a statue of Abraham Lincoln somewhere outside of Buckingham palace.

Oooh, and for the Potterheads out there, we saw the façade for Gringott’s bank, a.k.a. the Australian Home Office. I’ll try to get a picture, but I’m not sure if embassy security are as fussy in the U.K. as they are in the U.S. about people aiming cameras at their front doors.

Observations for the Day:

British toilet paper has improved since 1985. Even in the public lav at Victoria station it was relatively reasonable and not the waxed paper nightmare that I remembered.

In her story “The First Thanksgiving” from The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell describes her family as being “claustrophobic homebodies who would prefer to be alone than in a group. I can relate to that. London is a DAMN big city, there’s lots of people, lots of places, and I tend to go all to pieces when I’m not in an area that I recognize or can maneuver well in. At Victoria there were literally thousands of people, lots of ambient noise, I couldn’t see well anywhere around me (too short), I don’t tend to hear well when there’s a lot of background noise, and as a result I got us completely turned around while trying to find the pub at which we had planned to eat dinner (called The Rat and Parrot) and just about had a breakdown when I couldn’t find the underground station again. And I am very much my mother’s daughter in my sense of direction. Given a map I can probably find where I’m going most of the time, but if there’s any inaccuracies or twists I can get butt lost in no time.

Doesn’t mean I’m not having fun though.

There are still Cadbury chocolate vending machines at the tube stations. I’m thrilled.

Being simultaneously kippered by cigarette smoke while enjoying some truly stellar Indian food detracts from the enjoyment less than one would think. The Indian place we fell into after we failed to find The Rat and Parrot was the real thing. Andrew’s prawn vindaloo was hot enough to give me hiccups and my lamb masala was outrageous.

The statue of QueenVictoria is still quite one of the ugliest pieces of statuary it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

Also it’s not just taxi drivers, tour bus drivers regular drivers, scooter riders, pedestrians, etc. are all complete and total lunatics. I won’t ever figure out the traffic here, I can never remember which way to look when I cross the street and it’ll be a miracle if neither of us ends up getting squashed. Thank God we decided not to drive while we’re here.

Fun With British English 5/24/06:

People do say words like “cor” and “strewth” unashamedly and without any sense of irony. I’m enchanted.

Tomorrow we plan to go back into Victoria, pick up the bus tour again and get on and off this time instead of just riding around. I wouldn’t mind getting the barking mad narrator again, but I could do without the Americans from Olympia. I came to Great Britain to get away from most other Americans.

Hey Matt, what happened with the woman and her bat?

Thursday May 25th 2006

We’ve been married for ten years. Thanks again to everyone who came to the wedding and encouraged, with great energy, our relationship. Here’s to another forty or fifty more.

We both managed to get up and get it together in time for breakfast. I could have used another few hours of sleep, but Andrew was all bright and bushy tailed so I gave up and got up. The water pressure in the shower on its own is pretty wimpy, but Maura has this magic little doodad that spikes it up to PRETTY DAMN IMPRESSIVE. Wake you up impressive.

We tubed it into the Tower Hill station instead of Victoria and went directly to the Tower instead of catching our bus tour again. The Tower is still really cool but I’m distinctly cheesed off that the Great British Heritage passes that I purchased at great expense with the understanding that they’d get us into……well, British Heritage sites, did not, in fact, get us into the Tower. I am considering major complaints and charge backs on my Visa card if these passes don’t end up paying their way. Cost us thirty damn pounds to get into the Tower.

Enough ranting.

There’s still a whole lot of walking to be done, the stairs inside the towers are still extremely narrow and spiral-y, the 11th century graffiti scratched into the walls is absolutely stunning, and Henry VIII’s armor with the codpiece still cracks me up. I also noticed that the face plates for the horses’ armor (it has some special name, but I’ve forgotten what it is at the moment) not only have little armor sections covering the ears, but the earpieces are tufted as if the horses’ ear hair needed protection. We got some good pictures.

Contrary to popular rumor the ravens at the tower aren’t locked up for fear of bird flu, although most of them were on restriction in their mews today. They don’t seem as large as they did in 1985, now whether that’s because I’m more adult (god knows I’m not any much bigger except in girth than I was 20 years ago) or whether it’s simply that I’m more acclimated to dealing with big damn birds it’s hard to say. They’re still pretty big, they’ve still got REALLY IMPRESSIVE beaks, and there are still signs sprinkled all over the green that say in multiple languages, ‘RAVENS BITE!’

I couldn’t find any information at all, anywhere, about a Tower Ghost Tour which makes me think that what I heard about it was just urban legend. We were both really interested in getting in on the Ceremony of The Keys where you follow the beefeaters around as they lock things up for the night, but you have to sign up for it a few months in advance. Oh well.

They’ve improved the traffic flow through the vault with the Crown Jewels too. You start in a reception area where you get to watch the important section of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Watching it over a few times I was struck by the tremendous responsibility that was placed on her, even as a token monarch, at such a young age. Okay, she was 25 (by the estimation of the beefeater that I asked later), and sure there have been many more coronations of much younger monarchs, but for heaven’s sake, even to be named the token head of state at 25…… yeesh.

That doesn’t really do what I saw in the films, the expression I saw on her face, justice. It was a pretty moving film quite honestly, but then I’m a real sucker for ceremony.

Anyway, you start by watching Elizabeth’s coronation and then move into the vaults. No windows, any available window embrasure is boarded over with steel shutters at least 3 inches thick, vaulted, reinforced ceilings, walls quite literally 4 foot thick the works. There are displays of the less, well certainly not less valuable, but less important, paraphernalia involved with the royal house. A lot of impressively ugly gold work, a fountain basin calling itself a punch bowl…..solid gold, three feet long by two feet wide by three feet high. That’s a load of punch.

Then you move into the vault with the Crown Jewels. Instead of the round room and the multiple tiers on which you have to keep moving, they’ve now got a central island with a moving sidewalk on either side. You can’t stop, and if you try to get off and go around again one of the beefeaters comes around and prods you.

We went along the wall walk after we finished with the Crown Jewels. Little teeny narrow spiral staircases, cool glimpses into the yards of the beefeater’s living quarters, and when we finished the wall walk and were sitting for a bit afterwards I found a sparrow’s nest in a crack in between two of the stones of the wall.

A lovely day, it didn’t rain on us once. We took a lot of pictures, tried to load everything to the blog and found that there’s something not right with the web server which Andrew is now, at a quarter to midnight, trying to fix.

Dinner at the Kew Gardens Inn. You walk in and think that you’re going to get pub grub and what you get is a very fine meal. I had lamb (it’s going to be a sheepish sort of vacation it seems), Andrew had porkchop with bubble and squeak which he said was lovely. I had rhubarb sauce for dessert which had a shot of something savory/spicy in it that we think was woostershire sauce.

Fun With British English 5/25/06

While clearing our dinner plates this evening, the middle European waitress at the Kew Inn asked “Do you want some, maybe, pudding?”

I was able to translate this to “Do you want some dessert?” and asked for the menu before Andrew had a chance to pipe up with “No, but I’d like some dessert please.”

Tomorrow we’re going to Trafalgar, probably the London Museum, and quite possibly St. Paul’s cathedral. I still love the tube.

Friday 5/26/06

My love affair with the tube was strained quite considerably this afternoon when it took us almost an hour and a half to make what is usually a 20 minute trip. Not the fault of the London Underground that there was some sort of police activity at the Earl’s Court Station, but I sure wish that if they were going to stop our train on occasion that they would have done so in an area where they could open the doors and let some air in instead of in between stations where we’d sit and cook.

It was an annoying sort of morning to begin with anyway. We both stayed up far too late last night looking at the photos we’d taken at the Tower. It started raining again overnight which meant that early early this morning it was quite impressively humid in here and I was, I admit, grouchy when I got up this morning. The magic shower doodad did help, really there is nothing like being hosed in the face with hot water at high pressure to get your blood moving, but I was still grouchy when we set out at about 11 a.m.

We had some of our travelers’ checks to cash since we’ll need to pay Maura before we leave for Jersey on Sunday morning and I can guarantee that none of the local banks are open on Saturday. What I neglected (grouchy and tired remember?) to recall was that while we were planning on cashing in $1000, the packets of $500 were only packets of five $100 checks instead of packets of two $500 checks.

So when we got to the bank we only had $500 to cash which wasn’t going to get us the amount of money that Maura would need n Sunday. So I walked back, leaving Andrew at the local Starbucks to fight with their T-mobile hotspot. I got another packet of checks, walked back, and we went into the bank to cash them only to find that you’ve got to have your passport to cash travelers’ checks.

So I walked back. Leaving Andrew at the local Starbucks to fight with their T-mobile hotspot.

Thoroughly irritated with $1000 in checks and BOTH our passports, I met Andrew at Starbucks, handed him the checks and his passport and went to soothe my soul looking for emery boards at the local drugstore (they call themselves a drugstore, not a chemists).

Then we got on the tube only to find that some nutter was being chased along the tracks at the Earl’s Court Station and our train had to stop for periods of up to 20 minutes since the transport service had turned the electricity to the tracks off.

It was an annoying way to start the day.

We took the tube to Westminster and wandered down to get tickets for the London Eye. Coming out of the tube station at Westminster was like being dropped right in the center of Waikiki. One of the most unashamed tourist traps I’ve ever been privileged to witness including some woman “selling” tissue paper flowers on aluminum foil stems “for the children”. She was asking for donations, but, as Andrew pointed out, she couldn’t answer what charity she was collecting for nor did she have any indication of any children (photos, pamphlets etc.) so it seems likely that she was just panhandling and probably making a pretty good go of it.

We walked past the stand selling roast peanuts in some sort of horrid looking sticky sauce.

Oh damn, and I just remembered that we also walked past, without getting a photo, of the sculpture (and calling it that is really gilding the lily) of an elephant’s body on giraffe legs with a pyramid on its back. We really will have to go back and get that one, it’s quite impressive.

The London Eye is cool. Flat out, grade A cool. 30 minutes of slow ferris wheeling over the Thames and a simply stupendous view. Really worth 13 pounds and a long line. We got a LOT of photos.

We walked from the Eye over the Golden Jubilee bridge. Fans of Mythbusters will recall that that’s the bridge that helped to inspire the “see if you can collapse a bridge by marching in step across it” episode. It has been significantly reinforced since it was built and apparently no longer threatens to collapse from harmonic vibrations in high winds with lots of people walking across it.

And the winds were high. I am tempted to shave my head if the weather doesn’t settle down. Andrew already cut almost 6 inches off my hair, but in high winds it’s still a serious nuisance.

We were able to walk direct from there to Trafalgar Square which is cool enough if you like pigeons. Every pigeon in the city is there, most of them panhandling from people who ignore the signs that say in about 8 languages “PLEASE DON’T FEED THE PIGEONS”. I was struck by the thought that people wouldn’t be nearly as blasé about it if they didn’t have feathers. Really, what is the difference between a pigeon and a rat besides the feathers?

Anyway we went from there to the Cathedral of St. Martin-In-The-Fields which is right across the street. Standard Catholic cathedral, really cool organ. Engagingly hideous cherubs on top.

After that it was pretty much a matter of just tubing it back here. We now have a compact that if we can’t get on the tube before 4:30 p.m. we’ll just stay in London until about 7 because the tube was PACKED. Sardine can packed. Sweaty, stepping on people’s toes packed. Better than being stuck in rush hour traffic in a car, but a LOT hotter.

And at the Baron’s Court stop, two stops before ours, a pair of guerilla musicians hopped on and started to sing “this train is going to Richmond/this train” “this train is stopping at Gunnersbury/this train” etc. When they finished with that song they burst into a song of their own, a protest song called “If You Can’t Have A Shave In A Toilet” complete with guitar, bongo drums, a kazoo, and a whistle. Apparently the London Underground has recently started, in an effort to discourage homeless people from using the public lavatories for shaving etc., a policy of prosecuting and/or persecuting people they find shaving in the public lavatories. The lyrics went something like “If you can’t have a shave in a toilet/where can you have a shave?” “If you think about it much worse things happen/in a toilet” and lines commenting about how people are just trying to stay neat and tidy.

I just about ruptured myself trying not to laugh. They were commenting about how their song was available on CD, but if I’d turned around to see whether or not they were really selling CDs I’d have burst out laughing. I think I would have bought one.

When the train stopped at Kew, they jumped the turnstile, guitar, bongo drums and all, and disappeared.

Observations for The Day/That’s Not Something You See Every Day 5/26/06

Two things you will never see in a public restroom in the states:

1. A vending machine with little disposable, chewable, mint flavored toothbrushes instead of a vending machine with condoms.

2. A scale.

No joke, the public restroom at Westminster Station had a scale.

Being a licensed buskar in a hallway at Westminster Station in London does not, in fact, make your plonky rendition of Led Zepplin’s “Stairway To Heaven” any more appealing than it is anywhere else.

You will never see four pre-teen boys, three of whom are wearing neckties, EVER reading a newspaper in a public place in the U.S., let alone will you be able to notice that they leave their table in a fast food joint (the local fish & chip shop for the record), cleaner than it was when they sat down.

Clothes from Deva Lifewear should most probably be washed before they’re worn to remove excess dye. I’m currently wearing a new blue blouse and I’m blue in several interesting locations.

5 Responses to “A Shout Out From Across The Pond”

  1. Shawn Says:

    Nice, can’t wait to read more. The cat’s say Meeooow and other odd clicks and gackles.

  2. Sara and Danny Says:

    Where is the rat? I loved your pictures and commentary…but please, where is rat?

  3. Margaret Says:

    Sorry, no rat this time.
    A friend of ours pointed out that what with all the to do in the world today, being adult international travellers in the constant company of a large stuffed toy, to say nothing of a large stuffed toy with wires and circuits in him, would probably not be the best idea in the world.
    Besides, Mr. Rat is NOT a convenient size to pack around.
    Mr. Rat is in our thoughts always (gag, hack, choke!) but not in our damn luggage.
    I’ll take him to the AVMA convention in Honolulu with me in July. He’s got a membership badge from ACVIM in Baltimore, I see no reason why he shouldn’t collect one from AVMA too.

  4. Val Says:

    What!?! NPR lied to me about the Ravens at the tower? I feel betrayed. But pleased that you could see them. Someday I hope to travel to the UK and just, you know, travel instead of work, or be on endless do-not-leave-your-hotel-room standby for work.

  5. Dalek Says:

    Holy guacamole! I was sure y’all wouldn’t update the blog until you got home, so now I have a kazillion killer entries to read. Yay! I hope you chased the heck out of the feathered rats in Trafalgar Square. 😀

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