Friday, February 24, 2017

Amsterdam

Amsterdam canals.Amsterdam was the final stop of our November anniversary trip. I did not have especially high expectations of the city, but thought that it is worth visiting in any case. Some people that I spoke to before going really love Amsterdam — the so called energy — but for my taste it was a little too heavy on the pleasure seeking crowd. Granted, our hotel was pretty much next to the red light district, so it might have skewed our impression a little.

Our DoubleTree by Hilton Amsterdam hotel. Our room was in that hanging section.We arrived to Amsterdam by train and walked to the hotel since it was close to the train station. Hilton upgraded our room to a fancier one with an amazing view. The thing that surprised me was the size of the hotel — it took us a few minutes of brisk walking to reach our room from the elevator. Longest hotel ever!

View from our window.We had our first Dutch lunch at the bar downstairs. Danya got a cheeseburger, I got a risotto, and we washed it down with some very nice tasting local wheat beer. I am still not sure what Dutch cuisine is apart from the cheeses and herring sandwiches.

Cheese shop.The breakfast bar was indistinguishable from other Hilton buffets in Europe, and the snacks in the executive lounge were worse than in two previous cities. The one thing that stood out in the executive lounge was the Heineken beer on tap. I’ve never seen tap beer in such places before.

Royal Palace.Later in the evening we went for a walk in the hotel’s vicinity. There were a lot of bicyclists by the way, which reminded me of Munich. Unlike Munich though no one was yelling at people when they were walking on bicycle paths, and the reverse was true — no one scolded bicyclists for riding at pretty high speeds through the crowds.

Red light district.What surprised me was a traffic regulator on one of the relatively quiet intersections. Later we had a chance to see him in action — he ran to the car which was taking a wrong turn yelling (in English) something about the driver smoking too much pot and being stupid. I guess, these Dutch people know what they are doing when they assign traffic controllers.

Amsterdam canals.The red light district left an uneasy impression. I’ve never tried any kind of drugs, so even though pot seems benign to many people, I look at any kind of drug use more harshly than some. So for me it was not very pleasant to walk in the cloud of pot smoke. The smell to me is pretty disgusting (I feel the same about cigarette smoke), and I kept thinking how many of those people were using something stronger than marijuana.

Streets of Amsterdam.As for the prostitutes, we’ve seen a bunch in the windows. Some were young, some were more middle aged, some were skinny, some were curvy, but it just felt so weird that they do what they do in the open. Don’t get me wrong, I think legalized prostitution is better for everyone than the illegal one, but the whole idea of selling sex like candy makes me feel bad for women who resort to that profession.

Amsterdam.The next day after breakfast we went for the walk in the red light district again. Amsterdam has a lot of canals going through it like blood vessels. We also saw many bridges connecting the banks of canals, which gave it more romantic haze in my view. The city itself is beautiful, even though it does not have some famous landmark which would make it instantly recognizable in pictures.

Heineken Experience.We walked around for a while and ended up going to the Heineken Experience museum. It is worth mentioning that there was a sizable line to get in — longer than we’ve encountered in any European museum in the second half of November.

Beer stages.The museum was OK. I somehow expected more, but it was interesting to taste… whatever it’s called, the liquid which will later becomes beer. And see and smell hops. And hear about Heineken way to fame. The beer tasting at the end was disappointing — it was just regular tap Heineken, which I could have gotten for free in the hotel lounge.

Boat tour.We also booked a boat with Heineken Experience to take us to the Amsterdam lookout. Danya’s parents really enjoyed their tour on Amsterdam canals, but for me it was fun for the first 5 minutes, and then I just could not wait to get out of there.

On Heineken boat.Maybe if we had a guide who would have told us about city’s history, or if our driver was not an inexperienced lady, who was going sooooo slowly, it would have been a different story. Oh well. I am glad that we did not book a longer tour — our ride took about 45 minutes, even though it was supposed to be 30.

View from the top. Amsterdam Centraal train station across the bay.When we arrived to the Amsterdam lookout, we went straight to the top and Danya took a bunch of pictures. It was cold and windy out there, so we went inside a few times to warm up.

Window view.There was also some sort of swings which was putting people outside of the roof and they were kind of hanging in the air. There was a lot of excitement and screams associated with that contraption, and the line to get in was long, but I know that I would not get there even if I got paid. Adrenalin rush? Thank you, I will pass.

Streets of Amsterdam.We ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. It was very decent. Danya got a steak, and I just ordered a few side vegetable dishes, which turned out to be tasty and very sizable for the price.

By Delft shop.By the way, when we were walking by the canals we tried to find, unsuccessfully, the famous herring sandwiches. I suppose, they don’t sell them in November. What a shame!

Delft vases.On our last day we went searching for gifts. Danya found an interesting looking tulip vase online and we thought that something like that would be an original gift.

Little Delft museum.We started with souvenir shops, but buying things that are made in China seemed… I don’t know… boring? So when we spotted a real Royal Delft pottery store, we were very pleased. Unfortunately, if you want an authentic thing, you have to pay prices corresponding to developed country labor costs.

Walking around.Luckily for us, they had a 50% discounted section with last season’s stuff, which made the pottery more affordable. The vases were still in 100-200 euros range, but the one that we’ve chosen had a little defect, which Danya discovered at the counter, so they sold it to us at additional 50% off (we bought two vases total).

View from the top of Heineken Experience.We also visited the second floor of the store and watched an artist decorating the pottery for a while. We talked to her a little bit about the process and she was informative and also let us into the little museum belonging to the store for free — normally it is 5 euros per person.

Hearty lunch at Irish pub.After that we wondered the streets for a while, but did not buy anything else except for some wooden tulips.

Irish beer at Irish pub.We ate a very nice lunch at an Irish Pub — I washed it down with Guinness, Danya stayed loyal to wheat beer.

View from our hotel window.And this was our Amsterdam. It has its charm, but I liked it less than our other stops during this trip.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brussels

Grand Place.The ride to Brussels was fast and easy. We took a cab to the Paris Nord train station and after a relatively short train ride we arrived at Brussel-Zuid station. Our Hilton was located right next to another train station — Brussels Centraal.

Brussel Centraal train station.We did not know it back then, but we could have hopped on pretty much any train going in that direction for free (our tickets from Paris covered it) and would have gotten to the Centraal station in 5 minutes. Instead, we decided to take a local subway, and it took us around 40 minutes to get to the hotel. Oh well, we still saved some money if not time compared to the taxi ride.

Our top floor hotel room.At Hilton, we got an upgraded room looking out to the city center. The hotel had an executive lounge, which is a always a big plus. This particular lounge served not just appetizers, but full dinners in the evenings. The hotel’s staff was also very nice and they sent us a card and a bottle of Prosecco wine at the day of our anniversary. As I said many times before, Hilton does not disappoint.

One of the multiple fry places.We arrived to the hotel mid-day, and were pretty hungry by that point. Since all the travel guides praise Belgian french fries as superb and authentic, we decided to get them for lunch. We randomly picked a small place with a lively crowd. Danya got a burger with fries and I got a salad with the same side. What can I say? It tasted just like plain boring french fries is supposed to. Have you guessed that I am not a big fan? There was nothing special or extra delicious about it in this place, or any other place in Belgium for that matter.

Grand Place.After a quick lunch, we walked around the center and checked the Grand Place for the first time. Funny thing is that during our preliminary research both Danya and I were sure that there was a Grand PAlace — a King’s residence, and not a PLace — an old square in the center of Brussels. I’ve read that the Place looks especially Grand during flower blooming seasons, but with our vacation happening at the end of November the flowers were long gone.

Grand Place for afar.Our first impression was that even though the city center was nice, it was not distinguishable enough to stand out from the other European cities. The thought that we should have spent more time in Paris and less time in Brussels came to our minds more than once. However, Brussels grew on us as days went by. We circled around the center many more times and as the streets were getting more and more familiar, the city seemed more and more charming.

Beer tasting.But back to our first day. After lunch we picked a pub to taste some of those famous Belgian beers. The bar that we chose was cozy, but I think that we made a mistake by buying a sampler instead of just going for the beer types that we typically enjoy. There was probably one or two beers out of 6 that we’ve gotten that were more or less OK, the rest was just too bitter for our liking. We did mention to the bartender that we like wheat beers that are more sour than bitter, but with the exception of one beer she pretty much gave us the standard sampler. What a pity.

Our first beer bar.We went to pubs in Brussels two more times during our trip. Second time we picked a bar across the street from the first one and got a pair of Hoegaardens. The beer was nice — draft is draft — but the atmosphere was probably a little worse than during our first day. The bartender spoke Russian to us (we did not inquire where she was from though), and there was a big table with older people who were pretty loud.

Our second beer bar.Our third and final beer pub experience was the best. The bar itself had pretty high ratings, but it was not the beer, but the company that made it more special. We decided to sit by the bar this time around and at some point a young guy, who happened to be an American on a business trip to Europe, started a conversation with us. It was fun to talk to someone about a whole bunch of things, and he also suggested that we should try a sour beer — Belgian specialty, which I ended up really liking. In fact, we tried two different types of sour beer and one of them reminded me of kvas, only with alcohol.

Delirium Café. Largest selection of beer per The Guinness Book of Records.On our fist day we had dinner at a highly rated Belgian restaurant Fin De Siecle, which apparently translates as The End of the Century. It was really crowded and they had a layout similar to beer halls — long tables that people share and all. There was no menus available, just a blackboard with chalk writing on it by the bar, and they did not accept credit cards.

Central. Place.The food was decent and relatively inexpensive, but it was so hot and loud that I was glad when we got out in the cold and quiet of the night. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the city center again and the buildings were lighted up in blue, which looked pretty nice I think.

Metro station.The next day was our 10th wedding anniversary. Yay to the happiness that we’ve had and hopefully will continue to have! We decided to go to Brugge and possibly stop at Ghent on our way back. There will be a separate post about that day.

Atomium.On the third day we made a trip to the Atomium, which was constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. Travel guides say that Belgians consider their Atomium to be on par with Eiffel Tower, but I beg to differ. I have not heard about Atomium prior to visiting Brussels, and I bet I was not alone in my ignorance.

Inside one of the strands at Atomium.We took a subway ride to the place — even though we had to switch train lines ones, it was easy enough to figure out how to get there. Once we got there, we first took a stroll in the vicinity and took some pictures and then got tickets for the inside tour. It was not especially memorable — mostly a bunch of World Expo posters. The view from one of the spheres was OK, but nothing special as well.

Looking out one of the windows.After Atomium, we walked around some more and went to have lunch at another place rated well by Trip Advisor. It was almost closing, so we could only pick one of the two dishes from the day specials, which actually worked out just fine. I got fish, Danya got meat, and I ended up really enjoying it. I also got a raspberry Hoegaarden beer, which tasted more like compote.

Another window view.Funny thing is that when we were looking for that particular place, we passed a whole bunch of other places where the waiters were quite aggressively trying to lure us in, promising free beer and such. From what Danya read on Trip Advisor, such places turned out to be tourist traps, where people ended up paying high prices for substandard food. Good thing that we skipped those. Although, as a rule, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Park by Atomium.In the evening we took another stroll though the city center and even went to see the silly statue of the pissing boy — Manneken Pis. I don’t know why, but it managed to be in a spotlight of tourist attention for a very long time, and people do not seem to tire of it. Oh well, why not?

Park by Atomium.The next day we just spent a good chunk of the morning staying in bed — vacations without children are the only time when I have a luxury to do this. I actually managed to read three books during the vacation. For me it’s a very fast pace, since I don’t normally have much time for reading for myself — reading for kids is the whole other story.

By Atomium.For lunch we’ve decided to check out a cheese sandwich place — Tonton Garby — which had very high ratings on Trip Advisor. The shop owner is very chatty and attentive, and he obviously knows his cheeses. We liked our sandwiches a lot.

Tonton Garby cheese sandwich shop.The downside is that you have to wait for a long time to get your sandwich since the owner spends roughly 10 minutes per customer. We stood in line for about 40 minutes — there were two couples ahead of us — but I think it was worth it. We ate our sandwiches in Hilton’s executive lounge though — more room, warmer, and who can beat free drinks?

Église Notre-Dame du Sablon.In the afternoon we went to explore the city some more. We walked to the Royal Palace, had a nice stroll in some park and even visited a church, which was probably nice, but does not stick out in memory.

Grand Place.We also stumbled upon a shopping avenue with many famous brands present, but we just passed them by since neither me, nor Danya felt particular urge to buy stuff. We did visit a BMW shop which had a free expo going. There were a whole bunch of historic BMWs, and even though I am not an automobile aficionado, it was interesting to see the car industry evolution through the experiences of this particular company.

Christmas market.And of course we ended up in the center again, where we got lucky because the holiday market, which was being built during the previous days, was finally open. We wondered through it for a while, and I even got a nice hand-made pendant on a black rope.

View from our window.After that we made our last visit to the local bar — a place called Delirium. I’ve wrote about our nice experience there a few paragraphs back.

At Delirium bar.I think we had dinner at the Executive lounge, and it was really good as always.

Brussels. Park by Atomium.
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Friday, January 9, 2015

Berlin

Cityscape of Berlin with Berlin TV Tower from the roof of Park Inn.At this point it has been more than a month since we came back from our vacation to Germany and Austria and we have yet to put down our thoughts on “paper” — it’s always hard to decide how to go about it. In short — it’s been great. We had a chance to truly relax, see a lot of great things and try a lot of delicious things from local cuisines. And of course we drank lots and lots of beer.

The Flight


Lufthansa.The flight itself was pretty uneventful. It was a red-eye trip via Lufthansa on Boeing 747 with a changeover at Frankfurt. Because it was a red-eye flight it was rather hard on us. We’re not used to not sleeping for that long, and due our general inability to sleep on a plane we were just falling in and out of consciousness, yet not sleeping everywhere, including during our wait for our plane to Berlin at Frankfurt.

Arrival


Streets of Berlin.When we got to Berlin we went through the passport control quickly, got our bags and were on our way to catch a taxi. Now Germany turned out to be probably the only country that has a higher concentration of … wait for it … German cars than Brighton Beach. I supposed there must be some kind of tax breaks that German car makers get that makes their cars affordable for pretty much everyone.

Berlin streets.All taxis were for the most part made by Mercedes Benz. They were all beige in color too. We got into one and asked to get us to Hilton Berlin. Since there is only one Hilton in Berlin driver knew were to go. The only notable thing that happened during the ride was the driver who was of non-German origin stopping in the front of one of the plain looking buildings and saying: “This building is typical Nazi architecture. Like it?” We had no idea how to respond to that, so we just stayed quite.

TV Tower.During our drive through the edges of the city we saw a lot of empty and beat up places and structures. We also noticed huge quantities of construction cranes all over the city from one edge to another. But the city looked quite unwelcoming until we got to more central parts of it. There everything looked clean, new and pleasant. The city is quite modern, which probably is a result of it being leveled during the war.

Enormous ex-Soviet, now Russian embassy. It was huge.The ride from the airport took about 20 minutes. When we got to our hotel Alёna got out of the car while I was paying the driver. When both of us got out of the car we saw that Alёna has pulled out two 50 pound suitcases out of the trunk by herself. The driver’s eyes doubled in size and he proclaimed: “Whow, strong woman!” I have no idea what possessed Alёna to do that, but it was quite hilarious.

First Night


Our suite.Hilton welcomed us as Hilton often does. They put us on a high floor and upgraded our room to an executive corner suite with a spectacular view of a square right across the street from the hotel with German and French churches and apparently one of the famous markets which exist all over the place, especially close to holiday seasons — Gendarmenmarkt. Alёna kept referring to our suite as an apartment because it was indeed quite big. They also gave us a bottle of champagne on ice and congratulated us with our anniversary.

One of many markets.We thought that when we get to Germany we will be totally like zombies and the only thing that we’ll want to do would be sleep. That’s what happened to us in Italy. However here for some reason we got a second wind and went out exploring the nearby area. We walked around the square where Gendermenmarkt was located, but the market on it was closed. They were preparing it for the holiday season and it was in a construction mode. It did open a day later. And we found a lot of similar markets all throughout Germany and Austria later on.

Hilton Berlin.Eventually we settled on the dinner in a place that we were passing by called Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt. It was packed with people and it was about 4:30pm. When we came in nobody paid attention to us. As we later noticed it was the case everywhere and while in US you expect to be seated by a hostess in Germany people just come in and pick their own table.

East Berlin traffic light.Eventually one of the waiters came by and we asked him for a table. He looked over the notes of reservations and said something about 3 hours in broken English. We were quite disappointed to find out that we had to wait for 3 hours. He asked if we wanted to sit down now. We said, sure, that’s why we’re here. He mentioned 3 hours again. We were very confused by now. Eventually we figured out that we actually could have a table right away, but we had to be done with our dinner in 3 hours since the table had a reservation for 7:30. Yeah, I think we could finish our dinner in 3 hours.

West Berlin traffic light.For our first dinner we ordered two entries — two different kinds of wursts with sauerkraut and cabbage. And of course there was mandatory beer. Everywhere we went we ordered wheat beer with our meals. Beer in Germany is served in at least half a litter glasses in majority of places and that’s what we stuck with. They also serve it in the properly marked glass with a logo of the beer that you’re drinking and they give you a bierdeckel (a cardboard coaster that you place your glass on) that we ended up collecting. Our dinner was delicious and atmosphere of the restaurant was great.

Berlin bear.As you can imagine we consumed quite a large quantity of beer. We also did a lot of sleeping. We were going to bed early and to our surprise we were waking up quite late — 8-9am. We slept at least 10 hours every day. So that’s exactly what we did next. We went to our hotel and got into the bed. That’s pretty much how our vacation went — we saw a lot of cool things, walked a lot, eat and drank a lot and rested. It was great.

Berlin Day One


Checkpoint Charlie.The location of our hotel turned out to be perfect. Imagine a triangle with Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate on one corner, Checkpoint Charlie on another, Fernsehturm (TV Tower) on the third corner and our hotel and Gendarmenmarkt at the center. Those are the places that we wanted to see during our first visit to Berlin and it couldn’t have worked out better.

Museum.We got a great night of sleep, ate breakfast at our hotel and set out to see Checkpoint Charlie. This place was a border crossing from Soviet part of Berlin into an American controlled one. There is a sign next to it warning people in large letters that they are about to leave American territory. Also there is a museum dedicated to bad life of people in DDR (Soviet Germany) and how many people tried to escape to the west. We walked around and maybe we’re cold hearted, but we just could not feel bad about those people considering the events that lead to the split of Germany in the first place.

Brandenburg Gate.After that we set out to see the Brandenburg Gate. As I said before the city seemed quite modern and there wasn’t much of anything old left. The gate itself was nice to see as it is such a famous monument. The gate is located next to Teirgarten — Central Park like place. I read somewhere that there was a monument to Soviet soldiers not far into the park, so we set out to find it. It wasn’t far from the entrance. The monument was huge. It had several large columns dedicated to different parts of the army, a huge Soviet crest and a statue of the soldier. Everything was written in Russian. It felt weird to see such a monument to somebody who conquered your country some time ago. I think it’s very nice of them to preserve this piece of history.

Monument to Soviet soldiers.Reichstag — the government building — was also nearby. But one needs a reservation to actually go inside for a tour, which we luckily have made on our last day in New York. I somehow missed this piece of information, but Alёna spotted it just in time. However the availability was limited therefore our reservation was for the next day. We walked around, took some pictures and went back to the hotel.

Reichstag.The weather was not very cold and it was the only sunny day that we had. On the first day Alёna has spotted that Berlin is covered in wooden bears. They have some art project going and they were all over the place. All similarly shaped, but each one had a different paint job.

Berlin bears.After a nice rest at the hotel we were ready for a second half of the day. The day itself was special — it was our 8th wedding anniversary. We had planned ourselves a nice dinner at the top of Berlin TV Tower at the rotating restaurant in the sphere. We paid €50 ahead of time to reserve a table by the window and a-line-free ride up the tower. The sun has already set down by the time we got up the tower, so the pictures weren’t very good. Also there is no open air observatory up there.

Berlin street with TV Tower in the background.We sat down at our table. The view was great. Dark blue sky over the city full of lights. The special dinner was going to be memorable. The restaurant was indeed spinning. After about 15 minutes of sitting down Alёna said that it appears to be making her dizzy. We decided to switch places, so Alёna would be facing forward. That didn’t help. After 20 minutes our waiter didn’t show up and Alёna was getting dizzier. We decide to leave. We wanted the evening to be memorable good, not memorable bad. So we figured, fine, we’ll just find a nice non-spinning restaurant closer to earth somewhere.

Berlin TV Tower.We walked out of the tower, but before finding a restaurant we decided to checkout Park Inn. In my pre-trip research I was looking for a place that would let me take bird-view picture of the city with a tower as the centerpiece. Park Inn was not far form the tower and from what I read it had an open deck on the roof accessible by tourist. The only “but” about this place was that access was granted to those who wanted to bungee jump from the roof for €70. I was hoping to convince them to let me out there for pictures for a smaller sum of money, but most importantly without having to jump off the roof at the end. We were happy to discover that one could get to the roof for picture taking for just €3 per person. By now it was too dark, but we decided to come back the next day for the sunset.

Anniversary dinner.After that we started walking back to our hotel while looking at the menus of various restaurants that we were passing by. Near one place that were considering we ran into a guy who asked us for a light in German. When we responded that we don’t speak any German he detected our Russian accent and switched to Russian. He saw us looking at the menu and said that it was a very nice and popular spot. For some reason I thought that the guy was the owner and the last thing I wanted to do is eat at a Russian restaurant in Germany. We have plenty of those in Brooklyn.

Our 8th anniversary.And we walked away, but then decided to give it a look inside. It turned out to be somewhere below the ground level, but the place looked very cozy and was packed with people. The guy that we met outside was sitting at the table and was one of the customers. And that’s how we picked the place for our special anniversary dinner — Gasthaus Mutter Hoppe.

View from the tower.We ordered two glasses of wheat beer (half a litter each) and some herring appetizer which turned out to be quite delicious. For the main course we ordered wild boar and sauerbraten — sour roast meat. Wild boar was excellent. Sauerbraten was OK, but our local German place in Brooklyn serves a better, softer version of it. All in all we had a great dinner and have a “spinning” story to go along with it. We also got a nice stack of beer coasters given to us by the waiter when we asked for a clean pair of the ones we were using.

The gate.We got back to our hotel, spent some time in the executive lounge where I found some excellent sour cherry juice among many other things and went to bed at about 8pm. It was a great first day.

Berlin Day Two


On the roof.On our second day we woke up not so early. The plan for the day was simple — tour the Reichstag in the first half of the day and get up on the roof of Park Inn for some cityscapes. The morning was rainy. We were thinking of a place where we could buy a pair of umbrellas as we forgot to park ours. When we asked at the front desk if they could point us in the right directions they said they couldn’t, but would happily land us a pair. That’s how we ended up with a pair of nice, large Hilton branded umbrellas.

Reichstag roof.We made our way to Reichstag via some different streets and were inside the government building rather quickly. We got up to the roof and inside the glass dome which also had walkways leading to the very top of the dome itself. It was really nice and allowed us to look at the city from a different high vantage point. Inside the glass dome there was a large circle of photographs about the history of the building and Germany in general. For the WW2 era the photos note that the country was under a hard dictatorship. I imagine that modern German people think of Hitler as a normal Russian person thinks of Stalin.

Inside the dome.In the second half of the day we were on the roof of Park Inn as planned. Sadly I didn’t take my tripod with me on the trip and this was one of the few places where it would’ve come handy. The open area was not on the edge of the roof. If I were to rest my camera on the guard rail for an HDR burst a large portion of the roof itself would’ve been in the shot. There was a also a metal net, but it was actually a net, which was not stable, therefore I couldn’t mount the camera higher either. So I ended up taking all the shots hand held, yet I’m very happy with a couple of shots that I walked away with.

Glass dome.For the dinner we went back to our hotel area and found another German place called Lutter & Wegner. We ordered an excellent beef goulash and a much better sauerbraten that we ate on a night before — just like we know it — soft and delicious. The only problem with this place that it was the only eatery we have discovered in Germany that had an only one kind of beer. It was some pilsner and itwas too bitter for our taste. It was also the only place that had beer glasses that were smaller than half a litter. But as I said, the food was great.

Another view from Park Inn.And that was our second and last full day in Berlin. As you can see we took it really easy, ate great food, explored some sights, drank great beer, slept a lot. By the end of our Berlin stay I already felt relaxed and it really felt like a vacation.
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