Category Archives: the expat life

NOVEMBER. NOT A DAY TOO SOON

Yes, you can buy those….photo credit: Huffington Post

My first act as a newly minted citizen was to donate $15 to the Obama campaign. I was all excited to start participating in the election process (or scam, depending which way you look at it), in a way I have never been eager when it came to Italian politics.

Since that first and, I naively assumed, only donation, I have received e-mails from various campaign managers, from Joe, Michelle and Barack himself. I am expecting a handwritten note from Sasha and Malia any day now. In the last couple of days, former President Clinton found it in his heart to write to me and, today, right after the President concluded his speech at the Democratic Convention, I was holding my phone and counting how many minutes it would take for a donation solicitation to pop up. Six, it turns out.

A few weeks ago, I tried to unsubscribe to this avalanche of e-mails now clogging my inbox and that, truth be known, were initiated by my friend Sue who spends a lot more time than I do scouring the web. One night, in Rome, she yelled that she was signing me up for a competition to win a trip to Chicago to meet Mr. Obama at his birthday party.

“Think how cool it would be! You could blog about it”

“Do they want money?”

“No, it says no money required”

Needless to say, not only did I not get an invitation to the President’s birthday but a donation was involved to even get the chance at one.

Despite clicking that unsubscribe button more than once, the e-mails keep on coming. Asking me to participate to phone banks, to get out and register voters, to attend parties in my neighbourhood. A lot more participation than I bargained for.

I am hoping that, come November and my ballot is cast, this steady flow will dry up.

As a new citizen, I am eager to make my voice heard and I do get the point this is an important election. But, I beg you, stop asking me for money on a daily basis, twice a day. If you hope I will donate more of my money or time, don’t test my enthusiasm…

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MY LAND OF THE FREE, MY HOME OF THE BRAVE

Photo: picturesofamericanflags.com

It’s official. I have become 100% American, blue passport and all. I stood in line with another 2,700 fellow applicants on a perfect, sunny and warm day, entering the Los Angeles Convention Center, in awe of the perfect organization that was able to process that amount of people, stamp their papers, make them sit through an elaborately choreographed ceremony, deliver them their naturalization certificates in under 2 hours. Definitely America at its best.

For all my cynicism, even I was a teensy bit moved, and felt slightly different afterward. Let’s see – from now on, I will be afforded more rights in case of arrest; should I lose my passport in any country with an American Consulate, I will be re-issued one in a matter of hours; I can finally vote, one of the main reasons I agreed to be questioned, examined, investigated and to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops that lead to citizenship. I agreed to bear arms to defend my new country if ever asked and I pledged allegiance to a flag.

I am prepared to bet hard-earned money no other country in the world makes their new citizens feel so welcome, nor do they offer a sobering speech from the judge administering the oath nor a video message from our President. Even the cheesy song “God Bless America” by country singer Lee Greenwood had a place in all the pageantry.

We raised our right hand, repeated the judge’s words and tears were flowing, reminding me that where you are born is a luck of the draw, and that some of those 2,700 people standing around me fought hard and sacrificed more than I ever will to earn the privilege of being called an American citizen.

Upon delivering my naturalization certificate, the immigration officer at line 22 asked me where I was originally from.

“Italy”, I replied

“Why on earth do you want to become a citizen of this country?”

I thought it was the oddest question coming from an immigration officer.

“I was in Italy last year and it’s very beautiful” he added, as a way of explaining

“Well, this is my home now” I stumbled.

Indeed, it is.

 

 

 

 

 

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THE TRUTH, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH

The New York Times lay discarded at my feet by 8:30. The New Yorker managed to keep me company until 9:15 at which point I was left with David Mitchell and Cloud Atlas. Or Court tv. The large room with neat rows of black chairs was half filled and hushed. Every so often, a door would open and an immigration officer would appear with a sheet of paper to call an unpronounceable name. Precedence was given to people with disabilities and then a long string of Asians took their turn. People with lawyers also appeared to go in and out swiftly. Maybe they keep Italians last, I wondered. Maybe part of being inducted in the citizenship club requires a test of endurance.

I had arrived at the Federal Building downtown at 7:40 am, for my 8:15 appointment. The nice guard outside assured me that coffee was available inside but one look at the rickety pushcart in the Grand Central Station sized lobby put me off food and coffee within moments: if the plastic wrapped pastries looked so hideous, what hope did I have for joe? I spotted a business opportunity right there and then.

At 9:45, after exchanging text messages with relatives caught in an earthquake and dealing with some work e-mails, my (very mis-pronounced) name was finally called. I followed a pleasant Hispanic lady, missing two front teeth, through a maze of small offices and partitions until we reached hers, where my file stood atop a mountain of others. At this point, I feel like the US government, the FBI, the CIA and whomever else approved my visas, residence permits and, now, citizenship application, knows more about me than I will ever remember.

I was asked to swear, right hand raised, to tell the truth, nothing but the truth (although there was no mention of God) and I proceeded to answer questions ranging from whether I was ever a Communist to whether I had problems with alcohol. I guess I am too young to be asked about Nazi affiliations. I promised to bear arms and serve my country if ever asked and I rattled the answers to the civic and history questions I had so carefully studied. It’s not true they just ask you who the President is – I was asked 6 of the more obscure questions out of the 100 we are given to study.

It was actually the best part of the process. For the first time I found American history interesting and looking at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a bit more in-depth than I had ever bothered before, many political and juridical wranglings still going on today made a lot more sense. Best of all,  I like the idea of belonging to a country that explicitly guarantees my rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is my legal right to do the utmost to create my own happiness. Whatever those Founding Fathers did or did not do, whether the Constitution should or should not be written in stone, they certainly got something right.

Technically, I am not an US citizen yet. They could still find reasons for not wanting me until I am officially sworn in – although, who wouldn’t want me?? After years of wanderings, procrastinating and not fully belonging anywhere, at least in my mind, it looks like I found a home. And one that wants me to be happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PITCHING A TENT

The red folder peeks from under other papers on my desk. I glance at it and mentally promise to take care of it soon and, in an effort to keep my word, I jot down a reminder in my diary. It’s done – I finally managed to cross to the other side and convinced myself it was high time for it, after seven years of the folder languishing at the edges of my desk. Seven whole years during which, periodically, I would question where I belonged, what made up my identity until I just didn’t know anymore and I realized I had become a fully fledged stateless person. Well, that is a bit dramatic. My maroon European Union passport clearly states I am Italian and a legal resident of the United States of America. My alien registration card, otherwise known as a green card despite not being in the least green, proclaims the same, its biggest advantage being able to join the line of US citizens when disembarking a plane, without getting stuck behind the snail pace moving queue of visitors, endlessly quizzed upon arrival.

I can work in the States, go about the everyday business of American citizens with whom I shoulder the same tax burdens but not entirely the same rights. I was brutally reminded of this when I happened to lose my “green card” at Heathrow and I couldn’t even get a foot inside the US Embassy without a phone appointment, and was stuck in London for a whole week waiting for my re-entry papers. A US citizen would have been issued a new passport in a matter of hours. Were I to spend six months and a day outside of the US, I would lose my right to residence and, obviously, I cannot vote, which bugs me to no end. Three years ago I would have proudly cast my ballot for Hillary Clinton and, listening to the recent Republican debates, I get frustrated thinking about not being able to exercise my right to relegate characters such as Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich to the back of the bus.

For the longest time, I didn’t feel “American”, whatever that means. It was partly a remnant of my old world European snobbery towards the New World, a bit too brash, a bit too loud, not as refined. In truth, American is what you make it to be. As I am getting ready to sign my citizenship application (or, more correctly, naturalization) and to send it off with a couple of horrible pictures and a $700 cheque, I am coming to recognize that it was this New World that afforded me the opportunity to reinvent my life, to blossom into who I have become with fewer restraints than I would have encountered “back home”. It’s this New World that is experiencing an economic meltdown not seen since the Great Depression, with its bigotry, its flamboyance, its attachment to seemingly simplistic values, that I call home. This is where I belong now. It might not have been the place that entirely molded me, where my genetic and ancestral roots lie but it is where I freely chose to be for the longest time since I left Italy. This choice was partly dictated by circumstances but it had a lot to do with the sense of freedom I have experienced here – not so much the freedom of “the home of the braves and land of the free” rhetoric but, rather, the freedom that comes with being able  to be who you want to be. Sure, I can express my opinion in Europe just as freely, for certain aspects my broad political thinking is better supported by the European political infrastructure but many aspects of the economic and working life of its citizens are too staid, impeding success and entrepreneurship.

I hope I have become a mixture of the better parts of the two worlds that live within me. I am glad the battle is finally over and, by declaring allegiance to the US Constitution, I finally don’t feel like I am betraying my roots. After all, I am a proud descendant of those Romans who would have approved. They so liked to roam and conquer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 TELLTALE SIGNS I HAVE MORPHED INTO AN ANGELENO

St. Luca's Basilica atop Bologna's hills

Cobbled streets, medieval buildings, red roofs are the trademarks of the city I grew up in, Bologna, and it’s hard to find some commonality with the sprawling metropolis I live in now. Funny thing is, I started catching myself noticing little telltale signs I have become a fully fledged Angeleno, for better or worse, and I have fallen into habits and thought patterns I would never have considered possible when I left Italy or London.

  1. Despite the miles I clock walking the dogs twice a day and hiking whenever possible, I wouldn’t dream of walking two blocks anywhere in the city or taking public transportation that, I am told, has immensely improved of late. I will move the car from parking meter to parking meter, to step into a store or a restaurant or wherever else. Just because.
  2. I briefly entertained the idea of Botox and fillers – then I decided not to add another expressionless mug to the mix.
  3. I can rattle off names of grains unknown to me 17 years ago and I will think nothing of adding Spirulina to my morning shake. Cappuccino and croissant are such a thing of my European past.
  4. I will insist on adding Stevia to my coffee instead of sugar, whipping it out of my bag when the occasion presents itself – never mind the sugar laden slice of pie that accompanies the coffee. At least I am still able to notice the incongruity.
  5. I regard a yearly cleanse as my civic duty.
  6. My social life is accurately planned around times of day, geographical locations and traffic patterns. I religiously listen to the traffic report and the traffic app on my phone is one of the most used.
  7. Spanish hasn’t exactly become my second language but, considering it wasn’t a language I spoke at all when I first came, now I can understand it and I can make myself be understood. Having learnt it mainly in the kitchen, I am sure I intermingle Mexican, Colombian and Salvadoran slangs without even realizing it.
  8. Should I feel the urge or need to visit a place that gets real snow blizzards in winter, I literally don’t have anything to wear.
  9. A mild earthquake will not get me out of bed.
  10. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and possums are my favourite neighbours.

One sign my Italian roots are still alive and kicking: I would not be caught dead wearing a track suit other than at the gym’s.

From MOCA Graffitit's exhibit

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THE DIFFERENCE WE MAKE

There are days when I harbour the thought of taking a leave of absence to go volunteer in some war ravaged African country, helping HIV infected children or rape victims, as if this could imbue my life with more meaning. Recently, I went so far as surfing Doctors without Borders and Oxfam’s websites, checking out their job opportunities – Logistics Manager sounded right up my alley but somehow I don’t think they will overlook my lack of at least a 2 year experience in favour of my proven multi-tasking and working under pressure track record.

Why would I want or need to cross a few continents to find fulfillment when the city I live in offers hundreds of opportunities for volunteers, one might wonder? And one might be right. The usual suspects, such as the Soup Kitchen, always have long waiting lists, but a myriad of other worthy organizations are in need of our time and efforts. I recently applied for a seven week shift at Cooking Matters, teaching low-income families how to cook simple and cheap meals from scratch. It only requires three hours of my time a week, in the evening, and I already know that battling traffic and making schedules fit will prove a hassle. Packing a small bag and moving away for three to six months, paradoxically, seems an easier option. I have this habit that, in order to let go, I really have to let go of everything or else I will drive myself crazy with the kitchen that needs cleaning, the dogs who need another walk, the ironing piling up, the friends I haven’t seen in months and all those trappings that come with life in the city.

The musings of a friend of a friend who works for an NGO in Afghanistan reached me this morning and I read at length of days spent in Kandahar arranging for delivery of supplies, meetings with various Ambassadors, field trips to the mountains and decompressing time in an upscale bar in Kabul (how upscale can it possibly be, I silently wondered) while looking forward to seven new expat nurses just arrived at the Doctors without Borders camp. Would this be a blueprint of my hypothetical African life? Trying to find solace with some Norwegian doctor or passing journalist in order to relieve the boredom or the horror? Suddenly, decamping to Africa looked a tad less attractive.

What transpired from this very funny and insightful man’s words was a basic need for adrenaline rush, shunning a life of conventional home/office routine, with a sandwich grabbed at the corner cafe for lunch and a subway commute at the end of day. He described the months he spent in Milan and how depressed his fellow subway riders seemed to him – grey, sullen, distant, all vivaciousness killed by ordinary life.I sort of recognized a former, younger self in his words, which is why I tailored a life for myself that was not conventional, without choosing the extreme of following wars in order to make a difference. Or feel needed. Routine was not part of my daily life for a long time. There is not much of a routine in a kitchen either, which is funny, because, if not to routine, I am certainly attached to my personal rituals. But I discovered that, oftentimes, behind a facade of grey, sullenness and distance, there are incredible stories to be found, profound tragedies that need healing, funny anecdotes, interesting lives, unexpected personalities.

Maybe that is where we can make a difference. By being more present with our fellow travellers, more interested and less judgemental, more open to the unexpected in the cubicle next to ours. Sometimes a joyride doesn’t have to take us to Kabul or Mogadishu and not even to the downtown Mission on Christmas day, when hundreds of people feel virtuous because they stood behind the counter serving food to the homeless for just one day. The homeless man I see every morning, who lives by the creek in the canyon, would probably appreciate my home cooked left-overs. The single mother I work with, who barely makes ends meet, might like a small gift for her daughter to put under the tree.

I know me. I will keep on checking those sites and fantasize about making a cosmic difference. I respect my quirks. And, if all of a sudden, I start blogging from Kinshasa, you will know why. For now, I am sticking closer to home.

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MARRIAGE, ITALIAN STYLE

My readers, those I have known for years and those I have never met, are a constant source of food for thought (and sometimes food for the belly too).

The man who wrote lamenting that his American born and Italian resident, educated, attractive and financially sound son of 36 was having a hard time meeting an Italian woman with whom to have a meaningful relationship, possibly leading to marriage and family, got me thinking about different cultural attitudes towards relationships.

It might seem strange that the country which hosts the Holy See and that is still politically influenced by what the Vatican says or wants, has the lowest marriage and birth rates in the whole of Europe. If economic factors play a large part in such decisions – it is hard for young couple to find  stable jobs/ affordable housing / decent childcare – there are also cultural reasons that come into play.

I have always been fascinated at how American women, especially those living far from urban metropolis such LA and NY, are still concerned with getting married in their 20’s. A single  woman in her mid-30’s is often frowned upon. Marriage is what they plan for and work towards from an age when their European counterparts are busy with college, career, travelling. Or just plain busy.

In Italy in particular, there are still two countries: the conservative south, where marriage might still be considered one of the few acceptable choices for women living in rural settings, and the industrial, cosmopolitan north (and I am including Rome in this two-penny analysis) where women like to take their time and enjoy their freedom. They do have relationships which do not necessarily start off with a desire to rush to the altar or to reproduce.

It could be that feminism touched us later than it did our  American sisters. My mother is still squarely in the “marriage was the only choice” camp but, if I were to carry on a mini-survey, of my college friends only one got married in her 20’s. A handful in their 30’s after a stab at jobs or careers and, most, never married at all. And here is the other huge difference – living together is perfectly acceptable, with no need to plan anything extravagant or costly and without diminishing the commitment towards each other. If children do come, the family is governed by the same laws that would apply to a married couple. So why bother, many couples ask. Why indeed.

Maybe it will all come full circle with the next generation who will look at marriage with the same unvarnished perspective applied to the full spectrum of choices. For now, Italian women seem content to assert their rights (and they still have far to go to reach full equality in the workforce and society at large) and have put marriage and reproduction on the back-burner. Personally, I would like to see young women look at marriage or the choice to live with a partner as another facet in our life arc, one that doesn’t require diamond rings, internet dating, bank breaking receptions or unattainable expectations. Just love and commitment. And work. And did I mention patience and the fine art of compromising?

 

 

 

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150 YEARS LATER

June 2 marked the anniversary of the birth of the Italian Republic. 150 years ago a bunch of fractured and mostly unrelated states were brought together by the wills of a few visionaries and the revolutionaries who followed them. Were they able to come back for this year’s celebrations, they might be appalled at the mess we have made of the original ideal. I shouldn’t say “we” as my only contribution was to abandon my land for what I deemed better shores, a choice somewhat disguised under a personal need for adventure.

A stateless person like me, when invited to the festivities the Italian community organized at  UCLA, politely declined, secretly aware that the speeches would have been too long and prosaic for my short attention span. There is a saying in Italian to describe things or people who are not clearly defined – neither meat nor fish. And it aptly describes my condition of not belonging anywhere in particular and my lack of patriotism.

A friend who refuses to believe in my indifference (although, rather than indifference, I would describe it as “emotional and logistical displacement”) sent me the link to a YouTube video of a moving performance.

Maestro Riccardo Muti, an ambassador of Italian culture in the world if ever there was one,  after conducting a performance of Verdi’s “Nabucco” in a Rome theatre, was asked for an encore of the popular aria “Va’ Pensiero”. He paused and, with the choir standing on the stage, he addressed the audience (amongst whom our ridiculous chase skirting Prime Minister) to chastise the recent slashing cuts to the arts and to reiterate the importance of culture in a place that, at many points in time, was the cradle of more than one art form.

Then he turns around and, asking the audience to join in, leads the choir into one of Verdi’s best known arias. To many Italians, Va’ Pensiero (Go, thought, on golden wings) carries more patriotic meaning than our (not terribly good) national anthem, partly because it has a patriotic theme and partly because, at the time it was written, it could have been interpreted as a veiled call to arms for the unification movement. Alas, historians have debunked this myth – Verdi was struggling to make himself known and was forced to compose for a libretto of an opera that tells the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt (Nabucco is short for Nebuchdnezzar, the Egyptian pharaoh who enslaved the Jews). When Verdi read the lyrics to “Va’ Pensiero”, the music followed quickly and the opera became his first “hit”.

Truth notwithstanding, Italians have made the aria  their own and most know at least some of the lyrics, as attested by the video which is so emblematic of the “Bel Paese”: melodrama, pride, misunderstanding and culture all rolled into one.

 

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STRANGE THINGS I MISS

I am often asked if I miss Italy or, more specifically, what I miss. After 16 happy years in the States, my answer is invariably “nothing much”. But, truth be told, certain habits die hard or, at least, the addiction to certain products that the mighty US hasn’t managed to either import or get right.

Friends who come to visit are invariably briefed on what they need to load their suitcases with. Parmesan is often smuggled because the real thing is a lot cheaper back home. At the top of the list, though, is deodorant. How it is that the “no gas” spray variety is not marketed here is a mystery. To me, it’s a no brainer – environmentally friendly (well, aside from the plastic packaging), aluminum free and, best of all, it does not stain clothes. Tired of perennially ruining t-shirts and dresses, I have resorted to stocking up whenever I go or  ask well-disposed friends to bring a stash over.

Hosiery is another item Americans do not really get. The cheap or medium priced varieties are plain ugly and I can’t afford to shell out $30 for a pair of tights that, in the worst of cases, will only last a day. A friend suggested looking in discount stores but why go on hunting trips when in Italy pretty tights can be found on every corner, for the modest amount of 7 euros? My mother recently dispatched a supply of half a dozen to replenish my nearly extinct cache.

And, finally, there is licorice. What passes for licorice in this country is nothing more than corn syrup and flavorings. But the noble licorice plant, indigenous to Southern Europe and some parts of Asia, shares nothing in taste with the black, chewy rolls. Its sweetness has been known for centuries and the glycyrrhizic acid compound is still used in medicine for a variety of serious illnesses affecting the endocrine system and testosterone dysfunctions.

Monks in Yorkshire were the first to mix licorice syrup with sugar, let it harden and made the first licorice candy. The syrup is obtained by boiling the root and then let the water evaporate – in most countries where licorice candy is consumed, that syrup is then mixed with sugar, mint or other flavors. In the Netherlands a salty (and pretty disgusting) variety is very popular. But, to my knowledge, Italy is the only country where licorice is consumed in its pure state. It comes in small, hard drops that are slowly sucked – the taste is definitely an acquired one, strangely bitter and intense but with a sweet finish that makes it extremely pleasant. At least to me. When I get hold of a few packets, again compliments of generous friends, I do not bother to offer them around as most people, interested and curious at first, tend to spit them out as soon their taste buds start to register.

Even more difficult to find is the dried up root. I have fond memories of browsing through the open air market that would set up shop on the street where I lived during the month of December. Among cotton candy, Christmas tree ornaments, torrone and nativity figurines it was possible to find a vendor with licorice root – it looks like bark and it is sucked to moisten it and extract the juice which, besides being bitter and strangely sweet at the same time, also carries a woody taste. I can’t even remember the last time I saw one such stick.

So, yes, there are practical things I miss and ones associated with childhood memories. My answer, though, will still be “nothing much” when asked what I miss – or I can always refer them to this blog.

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THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ITALIAN WOMEN – PART II

In the blogosphere, a blogger is helped by his/her platform (in my case “Wordpress”) that provides useful information as to how many hits the site gets, where the hits come from and what are the most common search terms, amongst others. Aside from food related blogs, I am always surprised to see how the piece I wrote on “10 things you should know about Italian women” is always at the top of viewed blogs – who knew there was so much interest in Italian women?

Some of the search terms amused me so much that I started a small collection I finally decided to address. My gut instincts tell me that most questioners are of the male variety.  Again, these are by no means scientifically proven facts but just mere personal opinions. Italian ladies, feel free to chime in.

What do Italian women eat – Italian women are partial to (surprise) Italian food and that is partly because ethnic food in Italy is not great and it’s hard to find other than in large cities. And even there, authentic Chinese or Indian is a chimera and South American virtually non-existent. Italian palates can be pretty stodgy and who can blame them? Real Italian food is indeed delicious. So if you are planning to take an Italian on a date, steer clear of Italian restaurants or you will spend most of the dinner hearing why what you are eating does not taste the way it does back home. A good American restaurant with fresh ingredients might be best. She might also dig American staples like burgers and hot dogs and you will hardly ever have to worry about bizarre food allergies or antipathies. That seems to be an American obsession (which I picked up fairly quickly)

Italian women and shoes – I am not sure what this search was about in detail but, yes, we do tend to have many pairs of shoes and my recommendation would be not to buy an Italian shoes. You are most likely to get it wrong as Italian ladies’ fashion choices are highly dictated by current fads which are not necessarily the same as here. Same goes for clothing – they take their clothes seriously and they will judge your wardrobe. Sad but true, although concessions are made for foreigners

Italian women and oral sex – Clearly, this was a guy fishing for information. What can I say? Are Italian women better or less known for it than other nationalities?? All I will venture to say is that Italy is not Alabama so I suppose it’s performed at the same rate as most Western countries. Happy now?

This was my favourite: Do Italian women eat after men – After some head scratching, I figured whoever was enquiring had some ill-conceived geisha idea of Italian women. Lots of single men still live at home, fed by devout mothers but no – by and large we do not have a serving or subservient attitude towards the opposite sex. Quite the contrary. We will be happy to feed you if cooking is our thing but, after date number 3, you will most definitely be doing the dishes.

 

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