Archive for the 'London' Category


Running with the bulls of CNBC

Exactly 10 years ago today I boarded a plane at Hamburg airport on a one-day all-expenses-paid trip to London for a job interview with CNBC, the financial news lies and bullshit channel.

I didn’t get the job, but that’s a good thing. It’s good to know what you don’t want as much as what you do.

Here’s how that day one decade ago went.

05:05. Get up, drink coffee, kiss wife, kiss little red-haired-girl, walk to taxi stand, taxi to airport.

cnbc logo

06:45: Flight to London Heathrow.  CNBC could have flown me to City Airport, but I guess they were counting their shekels.

07:20 Arrival Heathrow. The arrival hall / cattle holding pen is already crammed with a party of Japanese when I get to the back of the line, soon to be joined at the rear by a 747 load of chatty Indonesian tourists from Jakarta.

07:35 A previously unnoticed man in uniform stands up on a chair, points excitedly at one of the Indonesians and screams at the top of his lungs YOU THERE! YOU! Put that camera down or it will be confiscated! THERE IS NO FILMING ALLOWED IN THE ARRIVAL AREA!

07:35:10 Silence.

07:50 You know how when you just get past the customs doors you’re suddenly faced with a wad of people, some of whom are dorks holding signs? This is the one and only time a dork was holding a sign with my name on it.

08:25 It’s years before the congestion charge, and London traffic is going nowhere. The interview is at 10, I’ve been sitting in the back of this crushed-velvet barge for a half-hour but we’re barely out of the first roundabout heading from Heathrow to the City.

st pauls cathedral dome office building10:15 About an hour after I could have arrived had I schlepped with the plebes on the tube, I arrive at their offices near St. Paul’s and shake hands all around. They have no time for me, so they say I should just go wander about the newsroom a bit and chat with the people on the desk.

10:30 I discover they’re friendly enough, but my tongue has grown thick in the throat, so I blurt out some inane questions to those gracious enough to pry themselves away from their monitors to pay attention to the guy who’s obviously there for an interview. I silently pray to be plucked as soon as possible from awkward small-talk hell.

10:40 Prayers answered. The boss has arrives and we settle into a three-on-one in his office.

10:44 It becomes apparent that my hopes of working for a big-league news organisation in London based on a show reel of my work I’d sent them a few weeks before is not going to come off.

“We’re looking for someone to report live from the trading floor of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Do you have any experience doing live reporting?”

The honest answer would have been, “Yes, but I really suck at it.”   Instead I tell them I’ve done lives mostly on radio, but that the switch to TV shouldn’t be much of a problem.

The interview is fast-paced and covers a variety of topics. They would have me being the boss of the Frankfurt bureau, I’d be interviewing people in German but reporting in English and for one brief moment it sounds so appealing, especially to someone who’s been out of a job for a couple of years.

But at the same time, I’m thinking: no. This isn’t for me. I would have been willing to uproot the family for London, but Bankfurt? We were already living in Hamburg. Frankfurt in comparison has about as much to offer as a Gulag sentence, and besides, I couldn’t stand the idea of living away from my family just for the sake of work should we opt for me working down there while they stayed in Hamburg.

12:30 I am so dying to take a piss my back teeth are floating, but we keep it going for at least another half-hour before breaking for lunch at a nearby eatery.

14:15: Alone in the elevator after lunch with a man who’s attended the interview  but not said much looks at me out of the corner of his eye and asks softly in kind of a sly tone, “Do you play the market much?”

Again, the honest answer would have been, “Yes, and I’m dying to pad my retirement account with all the insider trading shit that guys like you have a direct line to every day,” but this time I’m even more honest.

“No,” I tell him. ” I sold everything before leaving Hong Kong, and haven’t looked back. I sleep easier that way.”

A curious exchange.  Was that a test?  Was he trying to see whether I was financially interested in anything I might be reporting on, and therefore in a potential conflict of interest?  Who’s he kidding?   Or was he just asking innocently whether I had any personal experience in markets at all?  But wasn’t the latter already apparent on my resume and show reel?

14:30 Relieved it’s finally over, I shake a few hands and am out the door into a sticky London summer. Three hours to kill before heading to the airport, I head straight to bookstores to load up, grab a beer in SoHo, then the train to Heathrow and home.

21:00 Back in Hamburg. Did it even happen? Yes, it did.

And because it had to do with journalism, money and  farce, it reminded me of this:


What I learned on a London long weekend

Update: contains comment by an idiot who can’t read

The Germans have a saying, short and clear: Reisen bildet. You learn things when you travel.

A few random things I learned on our three-day trip to London:

1. London cinemas can play the most shocking pre-show advertisements. We went to see Slumdog Millionaire at the Odeon near Leicester Square Saturday after a wonderful late-afternoon dinner at the Lido in nearby Chinatown. Watching the adverts, we almost brought it all back up. A tall, thin man with grey hair is standing in a white kitchen. Close-up to his hands punching out a pill from a blister pack, another as he takes a drink. Then a close-up on his face as what looks like a hairy worm starts to emerge from his mouth.  Just as the entire audience is gagging in disgust, the worm becomes a tail that he yanks on to reveal a slimy ball of feet and fur that lands with a resounding thud as he drops to the ground a large, grey and very much dead RAT.

The message: Rat poison. One of the ingredients you might find in fake prescription drugs bought on illegal websites.

You’ve been warned.

1a. Sometimes you wish you’d not arrived on time.

2. Slumdog Millionaire deserves every award it gets. Fast-paced, furious, fun, only one or two spots to challenge your suspension of disbelief in a story that will seize you by the shirt. Try to see it in a movie theatre that has gut-rumbling sound.

3. If you arrive at Luton airport, and don’t hold a UK or an EU passport, you will be treated like an asylum-seeker. After 45 minutes of watching first my wife and then about 700 other passengers breeze through customs as I shuffled forward in another line at a glacial pace right behind a clutch of people holding what look to be sheets of handwritten paper with fuzzy photos pasted on, I asked a fellow in uniform standing around if, as a holder of a Canadian passport with a permanent EU visa,  I might slip into the other queue so we wouldn’t miss our bus.  No.  Can’t help you.

Just as I was about to give up hope, they opened up another window, and we made our bus.

Any Americans, Canadians, non-EU passport-holders reading this?  Don’t go to London via Luton.

5. Then again, if you’re in Hamburg and want to avoid the drive to some desolate airstrip near Lübeck nearly an hour away to sit in a windy hangar festooned with clownish advertising before boarding Ryanair to Stansted, fly Easyjet to Luton direct from Hamburg, allow for lots of time upon arrival, and forgive yourself for thinking while entering that horribly out-dated Luton airport that you’ve arrived in some 1960s time-warp.

6. Riders of the London Underground don’t use cellphones.   Our friend Douglas says that’s because they could be used to set off bombs, so the transmitters were removed after the Madrid attacks.  If that’s the case, terrorism does have its upside, because the result is absolute bliss.  The constant mindless chitter-chatter yadda-yadda you overhear on the buses and trains in Germany has been the main reason my wife K now refuses to take public transport unless it’s absolutely necessary.  It was nice to enjoy relative tranquility and the voices of real people talking to neighbours for a change instead of self-important yahoos barking bullshit into their damn phones.

london-museum-natural-history-charles-darwin-statue7. K is a huge fan of Charles Darwin.  OK, I knew that already.  But in addition to being a great wife, the loving mother of my only child, an innovative cook and the decorator of a lovely apartment I’m always happy to come home to, K is a well-respected teacher of Biology, French and English celebrating 25 years of German public school service this year.   Biology is her main subject, the proper study of which would be impossible except in the context of evolution.  At the magnificent Charles Darwin exhibit on now at London’s Museum of Natural History she was like a student again discovering a love for her subject for the very first time.  No wonder, really.   In detailed, yet easy-to-follow presentations the life and work of the great man and his revolutionary theory are laid out for the visitor in an exhibit which should be first on the list of anyone with an interest in biology or natural history.  Especially this year in the 200th anniversary of his birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species.  We loved how they displayed his hand-written letters to colleagues, family and his future wife, his compass, impossibly tiny pistol and geologist’s hammer.

Part two in a couple of days, or next week.  These are very busy times.



Alfred Hitchcock in London’s Snow

In a way I’m sorry we missed all the snow in London, but at least we made it back home before the storm hit.  On the bus back out to that horrible trash-heap called Luton airport late Sunday afternoon it was snowing like a bastard.  I said to K: if this keeps up, there’s going to be a real blizzard.  Seeing as how the whole country was shut down by a snowfall that would barely rate a shoulder-shrug back home, we’d probably still be stranded there had it started falling only three hours earlier.

We stayed the weekend with our friend Douglas.  As the snow was still coming down Monday he took this shot of dear ol’ Alfred, whose immense, rusting bust dominates his building’s courtyard.

I like how Hitchcock’s wintry cloak brings out the details.


Random Google find:  The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow, a 1964 Hitchcock television show episode.


Another long winter weekend in London

Third year in a row for a quick, fun mid-winter trip to London. Two years ago I met up with Trish, who’d flown in from Los Angeles, last year the three of us flew Ryanair to stay with an old friend from our Hong Kong days, and now we’re at it again.

We’d need three parallel lives to take in all we’d like to do.


More photos next week, though probably not so much blue. :-)


Views of a London long weekend

Since the weekend was already a week ago, better wrap this London thing up with a few photos.

Our friend Douglas works hard for the money, and on a Friday night, he likes to nip around the corner to the local for a beer or two and have a bite to eat. We joined him. After dinner, the ladies bid so long, so the two of us ordered a couple more, then a couple more. Sometime toward the end of our evening we got talking to the people at the next table, who were laughing a lot and taking photos of each other One asked if we’d like to have our photo taken. Sure! Just don’t put it up on some website or some BLOG. So they took our picture. Then I asked if I could do the same.

I told them that I have a blog, and that I was going to publish it. They were OK with that, so I gave them this address. Hey guys, I hope the rest of the night was fun.


(Guaranteed not photoshopped.)

If you’ve got time in London to do some touring, but not much, at least check out the Tower of London. Sure it will cost you five times more than what Ryanair claims their tickets cost to get in, but once there, you could spend the whole day poking through crannies and getting lost in corners. We took the tour, offered free once you’re in. Hang around the entrance, and if you spy this guy, make sure you take a tour from him. Name’s Kevin, and he’s an absolute scream.



Douglas lives at the London studios where Alfred Hitchcock shot many of his earlier movies. It’s been recently converted to residential and offices, but the great director’s legacy lives on. This sculpture dominates the central courtyard. Not sure what the watch symbolises, but then again, I may just be exposing some cinematic / cultural illiteracy or complete laziness to go looking on Google for the umpteenth time today. Sometimes, I just like to keep a little mystery in life.


We dropped by St Pancras station, the new terminus for the Eurostar train via Channel Tunnel from Paris. It’s stunning, and even on a Saturday, swarming with people. I’d love to have seen it when it was dirty and gritty.


Canadian readers will get a kick out of this one. We all knew the guy was a crook, and now he’s finally in prison. But why did they waste all that time with a trial? He already came with a warning label, and you can find it within a shout of Buckingham Palace at the Canadian war memorial there, just inside Canada gate.


The Millenium Bridge is one of my favourite spots in London. I know, not very original, but there’s something about the way what looks from afar like an almost impossibly flimsy thread of steel has become such an important link between two of the most iconic sites in the whole city: St Paul’s on the one side, the rejuvenated Tate Modern on the other.


The Tate Modern’s turbine hall is stunning even when it’s empty. Right now it mostly is, save for a crack running the entire length of the floor. It apparently took weeks to install, and it’s interesting to look at up close, but I don’t know. It left me rather cold.


I’m putting in a shot of the same space a year ago. I tell you, whizzing down those slides was one hell of a lot more fun.


Our lives are intertwined with Hong Kong. It’s where I met my wife and where my daugher was born. It’s also where I met Douglas, who began as a colleague and remains a friend. We gravitated to Chinatown, not because we were hungry for barbecue duck or pork, but to re-live in some small way the atmosphere of what to us is so familiar. It also reminds me of Vancouver, because the sights and smells are to be found there too.

Actually, I lie. I would kill for a place in Hamburg to get decent barbecue pork. We bought a box of it and ate it like candy on the way home.


Saved the best for last. I don’t post photos of my wife or daughter, but the swirls of colour on this one somehow work. Happy accident.


© 2008 lettershometoyou
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Memories of Hong Kong on a trip to London

One of the things I used to love about living in Hong Kong took place only about 100 or so metres above it.


Back in the day, the city’s airport used to be a short taxi ride from downtown. The largest planes in the sky would fly west over the waters of Victoria Harbour, turn a half-circle to head east, then descend low through the teeming warren of streets of the Kowloon Peninsula, nearly scraping the six-storey buildings as they screamed past.

On the final approach, after the landing gear had been lowered, the plane would make a quick slicing arc to the right as it passed a beacon, before finally landing on a strip of landfill in the bay. Though there had been fatal accidents over the years, it was a tribute to piloting skills and maybe a bit of sheer dumb luck that in all the time Kai Tak airport was in operation, not one plane landed on top of all those people living just across the road from the start of the runway.

I was sitting in a window seat my first flight into Hong Kong in January, 1994. I’d been told about the landing, that I was in for something spectactular, but I never expected to see what I did. Through the evening darkness, I looked out the window at the buildings slipping past and suddenly in a flash appeared a figure seated at a kitchen table, the glowing blue light from a television set reflected off a pair of glasses like two flickering orbs. It was there and gone in an instant. By the time I tried to see something similar on the next apartment, we were past them and on the way down. I used to love that ride, and on every flight in hoped the winds were right so that would be the approach we’d take.

Why did I think of this on the way into London?

Because once past the motorway wasteland and into the outskirts, sitting on the bus from Stansted airport on the way to Golders Green tube stop I became fascinated with the scenes laid before my window as we drove by. I saw the silhouette of a man wearing a turban, a bedroom plastered with magazine posters, a dining room with an old-fashioned chandelier, a man getting up off the sofa, a shadow creep across a ceiling, curtains ranging from bedsheets to lace.

Whether it was some form of drive-by voyeurism or mere curiosity, I found myself compelled to keep looking, craning my neck to get the shortest of glimpses, somehow trying to peer beyond the mundane to discover something special, discern from that glimpse what sort of life they must live.

© 2008 lettershometoyou


Snowdrops and crocuses, heralds of spring

Sometimes you have to get out of town to see what lies ahead.


Snowdrops and crocuses,

Heralds of Spring

Snowdrops and crocuses,

The birds will sing

When all the world is bare,

Springing up here and there,

Blossoms of beauty rare,

Heralds of Spring.

It’ll still take about two or three weeks for them to appear in Hamburg, but in London they’re already out. These were spotted this past Saturday in the park alongside The Mall near Buckingham Palace, their quiet voices of light and colour reminding us that greenery will soon return to carpet the land. I was so thrilled to see them, I stood up, turned around and sang those lines out to my wife, my daughter, and my friend Douglas, whom we were visiting.

They always come back to me every Spring.

school.jpgIf the words sound a bit sing-songy and child-like, they should. In what I now recognise to be merely an early training exercise for that 1970s Village People hit YMCA, Mrs. Fairburn had her Grade One class (spot me if you can) stand by our desks and act out the words as we sang, drooping our arms and hunching forward for the snowdrops, standing on tip-toes and reaching up to the ceiling for the crocuses.

So unexpected to come across them midst the hurried, sometimes frantic bustle of London. But that’s what I like about visiting cities. Not so much the layers of history at the Tower of London, the grandeur of the Tower Bridge or the hulking immensity of the Tate Modern, but the little details you come across and only take notice of because you’re visiting.

© 2008 lettershometoyou


Welcome to Ryanair – please excuse our decor

Long-time readers will recall my rather pissy Ryanair post a few months back, written shortly after booking tickets to London online. It wasn’t so much the deceptive advertising that riled me – who, after all, expects to fly anywhere for five bucks? – it was the way they piled on the nonsense charges.

Forcing a party of three to pay €30 to check one piece of luggage, for example. Or charging a credit card transaction fee six times – return tickets for party of three – even though only one transaction is being made. Saying you can avoid the credit card fees by paying by bank debit card, yet refusing to accept my EC card, one of Europe’s most widely used card.

So it was with some sense of dread that we headed for Lübeck airport last Thursday, bound for London Stansted to visit my old friend Douglas, not least because a fellow I’d spoken with a couple of weeks ago told me Ryanair cuts costs by calculating how much fuel to carry by the weight of the load. He said that’s why if you don’t check in at least 40 minutes before flight time so they can start calculations, you have to buy a new ticket if you want to board the plane.

I don’t know, what do you think? Could that just be an urban business legend? I didn’t have to stand on a scale, there were no signs saying those passengers weighing over, say, 120 kilos had to pay extra, and I really doubt they’d cut it so fine they’d risk crashing a jetful of passengers and crew should the plane encounter some delay en route.


Classy eh? I hope that’s not our plane.

But because the ticket ordeal is long past and both flights were smooth and on time, about the only negative thing I have to say about Ryanair is the waiting hall and the plane interiors. You get the feeling you’ve been locked up in some Ryanair-sponsored Second Life prison, sentenced to look at wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling advertising in the most garish, cheap and nasty set-up imaginable.

Once on board, depending on which plane you’re on, you’re either bombarded with vodka advertisements strung along the luggage rack or forced to endure the sight of blinding, bright-yellow plastic covering the seats in front of you and over the entire front bulkhead, again splashed with

On both flights we sat through a variety of come-ons squawked over the intercom, selling everything from bus tickets into London proper to scratch-n-win lottery tickets to food – though I didn’t actually see anybody buy anything – as well as reminders that passengers could also order crap stuff from the Ryanair catalogue and have it waiting for them upon their arrival back home. Some of the items included furniture. Furniture! Right. I board a plane, the first thing I’m going to do is ask to see the furniture catalogue.

Service was friendly enough, though I’d say there is a stewardess Ryanair flight attendant badly in need of a reminder that paste-on fingernails and emergency evacuation procedures might one day result in a bit of a clash.

Oh, and one more thing. If you do fly Ryanair, don’t bother paying the extra fees so that you can be in the line-up that boards first. We didn’t bother, were by a long shot not the first ones in line, and though the flight was full, we still had our pick of seats. I figure that Ryanair makes at least an extra €500 on every flight by selling priority boarding. Waste of money.

But hey – I’m not complaining. We’ll probably fly Ryanair again, if they let us.

© 2008 lettershometoyou

PS: This is the first in a short series of posts about London. Four people, three full days, two birthdays, and one bottle of scotch.

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The London Underground is not amused

Imagine getting fired for having a sense of humour.

For breaking out of the mould, for letting people know you’re capable of more than simply warning commuters to Please Mind the Platform Gap.

That’s what Emma Clarke has been doing for past eight years as the voice of the London Underground.

But for putting a series of spoof announcements up on her website, they’ve sent her down the tube. Fired her. Given her the sack!

And the Brits say the Germans have no sense of humour.

I think my favourite is the one where she tells Londoners to get out of their shithole of a city from time to time, reminding them that the M25 is not the edge of the universe.

Great career move, Emma! Hope that site holds up from the explosion of hits you’re going to get.

© 2007 lettershometoyou

Update:  Her site has not held up!  Now that Reuters and the BBC have picked up the story, it’s been swamped with visitors.


London: Fast times with an old friend.


Dear Bros o’ mine,

Just came back from five days/ four nights in London! As you know I was there with Laddie in the summer of 1980 at the start of my European /Mideast Year of Backpacking Folly, but it all seemed so unfamiliar, I wonder what we DID for the whole week back then except dodge flying pigeons at Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, try to look cool and pretend the drugs we scored weren’t mixed with straw and camel dung. This time I was with my friend T. from Los Angeles. She had this amazing flight deal, something like 250 US round trip. I blasted in from Hamburg after she’d been there a few days scouting things out.

She wasn’t wearing fluffy pink but she did pack her rechargeables, running me ragged from one museum to another historic monument to another cathedral to another. Still, we didn’t rush from place to place. We got up early and stayed out late, savouring the atmosphere wherever we were until it was time to move on.

Highlights included St Paul’s Cathedral (went right up to the top) The British Museum (aka Spoils of the Parthenon we’re keeping them nya-nya nyah) Tate Modern (swooshing down spiraling silver slides five storeys high) The Churchill Museum in the basement of Whitehall which includes the actual war rooms, map rooms including wall maps of all war theatres complete with little Hitler cartoons showing him getting crushed, etc, Churchill bedrooms, Churchill museum, the works – it was extremely evocative of the times and most excellently displayed – Big Ben and Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, The Savoy Hotel, the restrooms in which I had a nice err… rest, the National Gallery, Kensington Palace (Lady Di dresses, Princess Margaret apartments, kings and knights in bed) shopping for delicacies at Harrod’s and Fortnum and Mason which added tons to my baggage weight, not to mention purchases at used book shops and a comic book shop where I loaded up on a half-dozen Asterix and Obelix cartoon books in English for The Little Red-haired Girl.


Our hotel was right near Goodge Street underground stop. You of course remember that scratchy Tom Northcott 45 we played over and over called Sunny Goodge Street? How we always thought that one line went “sugar chocolate machine” and we could never figure out what it was all about? How innocent we were! It’s written by Donovan (can’t find an MP3 by Northcott so the Donovan one will have to do) and actually goes like this:

On the firefly platform
on sunny Goodge Street
a violent hash-smoker
shook a chocolate machine
involved in an eating scene.

No hash, no pipes, not even a sugar chocalate machine, but Starbucks *has* managed to do violence to the cityscape. There must be about 800 of them in central London alone.

At Harrod’s I should mention we made the effort to find the basement shrine of Dodi and Di, probably the tackiest display of dead-star kitsch you are ever likely to see. Below the fading portraits of the ill-fated pair framed in swirly bird-like faux-aurium gew-gaws stands the same wine glass Her Royal Histrionics last used before she decided to go for her famous late-night spin much to the financial gain of London florists and purveyors of heart-shaped balloons and teddy bears for weeks thereafter. The contents have since dessicated to a cloudy film reminiscent of the spider web mould you might come across in that tub at the back of the fridge I bet you’ve noticed but been avoiding the last couple of weeks.

For dinner we had Chinese the first night, Indian the second, Lebanese the third and Italian the fourth. To give you a rough idea of how expensive everything is, a simple 330 ml bottle of beer in a restaurant will set you back eight Canadian dollars, an average dinner for two including tip without dessert or fancy extras will cost between 70 and 80 bucks. Lucky we only had to snack on nibblies for lunch because our hotel had full English breakfast (bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, oven-roasted tomatoes and Spam, fried mushrooms, baked beans and Spam, assorted breads, croissants, cereal, yogurt and Spam, Spam, Spam and jam, marmalades and Spam. And a bit of toast.)

To get around we took the tube. I had heard all the horror stories of how horribly slow, unreliable, hot, crowded and Generally Not A Good Time it is, but we had no problems whatsoever beyond getting stuck walking through a narrow passageway behind some piss-soaked wino where I almost hurled, and on the very last ride on our last night, tired and heavily laden from shopping, we had to change to another line because the train we wanted was stopped for signals a few stations down the line. Mustn’t grumble, mustn’t grumble! On the last day we’d also tried to get theatre tickets, hoping to see Spam-a-Lot or what-not, but the ones we wanted to see weren’t discounted and the regular price tickets started at around 140 – 150 Canadian.

What struck me most about the general atmosphere is how crowded it is, almost like Hong Kong at certain times of day, but with everyone carrying 50% more bulk and height. The people don’t walk on the street so much as trot or run, and you’re as likely to hear Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, Arabic or Hebrew on the street as you are English. Most people you see are young – in their twenties and thirties, have a cellphone glued to their ears or failing that, an iPod, and dress fairly well, though not overly so. We played an easy game of spot-the-banker as pin-striped suits carrying umbrellas and briefcases busied themselves thither and yon, and though I didn’t see a bowler hat there is a tiny little hat shop tucked in the street behind St. James church the display of which looked as if it hadn’t been dusted since the last time felt hats were an essential part of a man’s wardrobe.

As soon as I figure out how to load pics onto this thing, you’ll get a few. If you want to see about 20 of London on my flickr site(plus more of South Africa and Djerba) you already have my permission.



© 2007 lettershometoyou

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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