Paris Part 2: Disney and Con Air

Bright and early Tuesday morning, we made our way to Disney Paris. After going through the scenario of an early-morning train ride with the kids and my parents, we wisely hired the driver from Allonavette a second time and were dropped off close to the front gates around 9:30am. Technically the park opens at 10, but we were told the gates may open up to a half hour early. I know Disney can be quite divisive, but my family and I are firmly in the “Disney lovers” camp. JR on the other hand, not so much. He played along for the sake of the kids and even smiled once or twice for pictures.

We walked to the back of the park to start the day in Adventureland. Instead of being excited by Dumbo or the other rides, Abby asked when she could see a princess. We were right beside the Princess Pavilion and the sign said you could meet Snow White with only a 60 minute wait. I tried to discourage her, thinking no way would she want this to be the very first thing we did, but she was determined. So in we went. To her credit, she did not complain once while we waited every minute of that hour. I’m not certain how there were already that many people in line for a 60 minute wait but she was thrilled to meet Snow White.

Meanwhile, JR was living his best life, riding the Tea Cups and It’s a Small World with his in-laws and William. William is quite the talker these days and loved pointing out some of the animals on the rides.

After our princess encounter, we joined everyone else for a few rides before sitting down for lunch. We’d packed peanut butter sandwiches and snacks for the kids, but assumed we could buy cheap, quick-service food at the park. Well it was available but it definitely wasn’t cheap and it tasted pretty terrible. The only food place close to where we sat down was serving some version of a sausage, with some funky red sauce (not even close to ketchup) and fries.

Ready to tackle the afternoon, we made our way to Fantasyland to find Pirates of the Caribbean. I was so disappointed to see a sign saying expecting women couldn’t ride, so I kept William with me while everyone else went ahead. Abby said this was one of her favorite rides of the day and even JR said it was fun!

Then it was time for the Halloween Parade! The parade was a little underwhelming. They danced and sang, but there were only a few floats. They spread out and stopped and did their performance and then it was over. We walked to a Pinocchio ride, which is when William woke up and basically lost his mind. JR saved the day by whisking him off to the carousel – although he was very displeased when that ride ended. Luckily my mom and Abby were in line as well so he joined them for another round.

Oh so conveniently located near almost every ride was a store selling overpriced Disney goods. My grandma sent both kids a little spending money and it was burning a hole in Abby’s pocket. I left her alone in the store with my mom for about 15 minutes, which was apparently plenty of time for a purchase and complete outfit change.

The rest of the day passed quickly. We rode a few more rides, watched two more parades and a short show, and had a very sub-par dinner. Around 6 or 7pm JR and I were ready to call it. My parents could have gone on for several more hours, I’m sure, but by the time we boarded the train to go home it was clear we were all spent. The train was completely packed, we were really lucky to get seats because it was about a 45 minute trip back to the city. Overall, I’m really glad we went!

The next morning JR and I took the kids to Monmartre to ride the little train around the neighborhood. The kids loved it. We rode it up to the Sacre Coeur (one of my very very favorite places in the world!) and we enjoyed the view and some snacks. We told the kids the story of how we sat on those very same steps on New Year’s Eve in 2013 when I was pregnant with Abby.  They weren’t that impressed and were only interested in their snack cups. On the way back they took turns napping in their strollers as we walked through the neighborhood.

Leading up to the trip, Abby was insistent that she wanted to not only see the Eiffel Tower at night, but that she wanted to go to the top. We kept an eye on prices for Skip the Line tours, but they were expensive and I’d read that you could wait hours if you just showed up without a ticket. We thought she might be satisfied by our trip to see it when we arrived, but the girl would not be deterred. My parents offered to take her that evening and Abby will still tell you it was one of the best parts of her trip. She called JR and I a few times from the line from my Mom’s phone, just to keep us updated, and she was absolutely adorable. She also just HAD to wear her “best” dress (the new Minnie Mouse one she purchased and wore the day before).

Thursday was our last real day. JR spent the morning at the Catacombs while my mom and I took the kids to a playground. My parents offered us a final date night in the city and we weren’t about to turn that down, so we rushed out of the apartment before they could change their minds. We walked over to St. Germain and enjoyed a few hours of walking without strollers and backpacks full of kid supplies. We had a very French dinner (fondue for me, rabbit for him) and then enjoyed one last crepe that can hopefully tide me over until our next visit.

 

Friday was departure day for everyone. One downside to our AirBnB was that it had a 10am check out, and we couldn’t do a late checkout (or so we thought) because they had another booking that day. Our return flight didn’t depart Paris until 9:20pm, so we rented a day room at the Hilton near the airport. Our room was huge, and they also brought in a pack n play for William. The hotel had a small pool which claimed to be heated but wasn’t exactly warm and the kids loved it anyway. We all took a long nap, watched some French cartoons, ate dinner at the hotel and then took the free shuttle to the airport.

As we boarded our flight, there were 3 policeman at the door of the plane. We walked to our seats in row 15 and I think there were probably about 25 rows total on the plane, with a 3-3 configuration. I was getting the kids situated and JR was across the aisle. He stayed standing looking at the back of the plane, and you could hear some commotion back there. He said he thought they were arresting someone. I tried to look but couldn’t see much, but now that I was paying attention I could definitely hear someone’s muffled yells. After about 10 or 15 minutes of this, I asked JR why they weren’t just getting him off the plane? I also wondered if they were going to take him out a different exit because he sounded quite unhappy and I didn’t want him walking past us on his way out. JR asked one of the policeman closest to us what was happening and when he would be removed. The man said “oh no, he’s staying on the plane. He’s being deported. Don’t worry, no violence, 3 policeman will fly with him.”

Uh huh. That “no violence” thing was not super reassuring when this man was screaming in Georgian like he was possessed. Like the mature adults we are, we made a few jokes about being on Con Air and wondering when Nicolas Cage would appear. JR called me “hummingbird” a few times and kept asking “why couldn’t you put the bunny back in the box?”

Thankfully the guy eventually quieted down once we took off and the flight home, overall, was fine. William passed out in my arms and Abby eventually fell asleep in her seat. I knew from our experience in London she would be a beast when it was time to wake up and get off the plane. I handed William to JR and starting waking her, with the promise of cookies if she would just wake up and walk off the plane herself. She did, and when we got on the bus to take us to the airport William woke up and started saying “Cookie? Cookie?” And that, my friends, is why my children were on the floor of the Tbilisi Airport eating cookies at 5am a few weeks ago. Because it’s all about survival.

Paris Part 1: Direct Flights and Crepes

Sometime last year, I was at an Usbourne Books party and saw the cutest book about Paris so I purchased it for Abby. I love reading it with her, and started to fantasize about taking a family trip to Paris. We were planning to use our last R&R tickets to visit Ohio this November (we haven’t been home since last summer, which is the longest I’ve been away since moving overseas), but those plans were scrapped when we learned we were expecting baby #3! Knowing we’d be heading home in January for a maternity med evac, that left us with no plans for this fall and suddenly, my Paris dreams weren’t so far fetched.

I thought it might be a stretch to convince JR, but he not only agreed, he also suggested we invite my parents along! The new direct flight on Georgian Airways to Paris was a big selling point. We aren’t located that far from the major European cities, but there are very few direct flights, and the connections/layover times are not desirable. For the flight to Paris, it left at 3:20pm on a Friday. In the afternoon. As in, daylight hours. Practically unheard of in Tbilisi, and such a strange feeling for us to be boarding a plane in the middle of the day!

We decided to bring two single strollers instead of our Britax double. I thought we might struggle with the side-by-side stroller walking in the city, and since my parents were with us, we might split up and each need a stroller at some point. I also learned my lesson when taking Abby to London – she gets very whiny about walking too far (no clue where she gets that!). When we landed in Paris, I was annoyed but not totally surprised to learn our gate checked strollers would be delivered at baggage claim. You know, because when you gate check, you don’t do it so you can have the item as soon as you get off the plane, but what you REALLY WANT is to wait until the absolute last items have come off the baggage carousel to track down an airport employee so you can wait another 15 minutes for your strollers to be delivered.

Aside from that, our travel was uneventful and we had a driver waiting for us at the airport for convenience and our desire for car seats for the kids. We hired Allonavette, and we were very happy with their service. The driver had a large van, with comfortable and spacious seats, and most importantly, two installed car seats. He dropped us off at our rental apartment in the Marias district and the kids passed out immediately. I was able to almost completely unpack. I’ll put in a plug for packing cubes again. They are a game changer! I pulled the cubes (Abby’s clothes, William’s clothes, pajamas/bed stuff, toiletries, outerwear, and my clothes) out of the suitcases and put them in drawers or closets. It’s so nice to get the suitcases put away and feel a bit settled right after arriving someplace new. While I was doing that, JR ran out for a few groceries. It was almost 11pm by then, but my superstar husband still found me a crepe and brought it home for me.

The next morning we woke up ready to explore. We took a walk along the Seine over to the Ile Saint-Loius (where JR and I stayed during our last visit when I was pregnant with Abby) before making our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Abby was really excited, but kept asking when she’d see the Eiffel Tower. We let the kids chase pigeons in front of the cathedral before making a loop around the building. It’s a small park with 3 little things for kids to crawl on.

 

We returned home and waited for my parents to arrive from the States. Our apartment was on the 2nd floor of a busy street, with huge windows that opened to a faux balcony – great for fresh air, terrible for child safety – and the kids loved waiting to see Nana and Papu pull up in their taxi. After an afternoon of naps and relaxing, and helping Nana unpack her suitcase full of goodies, we walked towards Les Halles, a large shopping center that has a renovated play area beside it. The place was packed! It was probably 80 degrees, and there were kids everywhere. It was a great spot to let the kids play, and I wish our apartment had been a bit closer to it (it was about a 20 minute walk). At Abby’s insistence, we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower, trying to time up our arrival with sunset and the lights turning on. I got that one way wrong, but Abby went nuts when she saw it from the distance. I loved her excitement and enthusiasm when she saw it for the first time and it only amplified the closer we got to the tower. Also, to the entrepreneurial geniuses who now walk around the areas near the Eiffel Tower selling wine by the bottle or glass – GOOD ON YOU, BUDDY. Excellent idea.

I had big plans for our Sunday, but woke up feeling terrible. After weeks of every member of my family having strep throat, it was finally my turn. I sent JR, the kids and my parents off to the Louvre with plans to meet up later. Well you know how plans work. The Louvre was packed so they skipped ahead to the Tuileries Garden, which I promised them would have a great playground. Turns out the big play equipment was roped off and being repaired.

They managed some fun anyway and both kids were ready for a nap. Well, kids and dad.

That night we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe and then made our way slowly down the Champs-Élysées. Our whole group perked up when we saw a Five Guys (you know how I feel about American hamburgers!). It was crazy expensive but delicious. My parents offered to take the kids home for baths and bedtime, so JR and I stopped by Frog Revolution to sample some local craft beers.

On Monday, we walked back to Notre Dame first thing in the morning. It’s nice to get there before the crowds and lines start to form. JR, my mom and Abby went inside while William and I enjoyed pain au chocolates outside. An older couple could not stop staring at William – must have been that blonde hair – and started taking a bunch of pictures of him. I figured it was harmless, but did find it a little strange when the woman even came close to pose beside him while her husband continued snapping away. This face though, I get it!

We walked to Sainte Chappelle, one of my favorite sights. It was great to visit a second time, because it was partially being renovated during our last trip. Then I lead everyone on a longer than expected, warmer than expected, walk to the Luxembourg Gardens. Fear not, I told them, it will all be worth it when we arrive at this magical playground I’ve read about online! Here are some of the photos of what we expected to find:

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The reality, after an additional 10-15 minutes of trekking through the huge, but beautiful, park grounds, looked nothing like that. The play structures were removed, the ground was dug up, and the whole area looked like a field of dirt. I’d been promising Abby a trip to the best playground in Paris, and I honestly wanted to cry! Funny how the internet neglected to tell me the playground was being completely renovated. Ugh. Abby took the news in stride, much better than me. JR asked what I wanted to do instead, and I said just order me an Uber, I need a nap. And so he did. My mom and I took the kids home while he wandered around a bit longer, searching for things far more interesting than the next playground.

Back at home, my parents made a second attempt (and were successful!) to visit the Louvre while the kids and I napped. When everyone was together again at the apartment, they offered to cook dinner for the kids so JR and I could go out. I was super excited to try a fondue place, Pain Vin Fromage, so we set off. JR was not overly impressed but man…cheese, ham, bread…I was in heaven. The restaurant was teeny tiny, and the manager was horrified that we didn’t have a reservation. He said we could stay as long as we finished by 8:30 (no problem pal, that’s my bedtime) and he stuck us in the furthest corner table he could to prove his point. Really this just allowed me to feast on my melted cheese in private, so I was fine.

Halfway through our trip, I was feeling better so we made our final plans to visit Disney Paris on Tuesday! To be continued.

 

 

 

The Ups and Downs

There are so many wonderful and unexpected benefits to living overseas and this lifestyle we’ve chosen. But there are those difficult times that make you question everything and wonder – what the heck are we doing living so far from home?  I’m also trying to find a balance between being honest with this blog, and respecting the privacy of our families (and JR) who may not be as comfortable sharing personal information so widely.

While we were in Paris, we received some devastating news about the health of one of JR’s family members. We are still processing the information and waiting for updates from the doctors.

Living away from your family and your home state, you think maybe you’re prepared to receive bad news or to travel back right away when you get that phone call. But when that moment happens, it’s overwhelming and it makes you feel sick to be so far away when you feel like your family needs you the most.   We are fortunate that we were able to make the decision to send JR back to Ohio from Paris immediately, and his work and our friends here were understanding and supportive of his need to be with his family.

It was also my turn to be supportive.   I did not expect to be apart from JR so suddenly, and for more than two weeks.  He was where he needed to be, of course, but it will still hard to be here by myself.  Again, we’re both thankful for the friends that we’ve made here who checked in on me and made sure I didn’t turn into a hermit while he was away, and of course my amazing friends and family back home who called, e-mailed, and messaged me.

He returned last weekend and while we are both happy that he is home, I know that he feels very torn about being so far away.   It’s something we tried to think about when moving overseas, but you don’t really think it will ever happen to you.  And even then, how can you really prepare?    Right now, we are trying to stay positive and send all of our love, faith and encouragment to our family back in Ohio.  Even with all the technology that allows us to stay in touch, there is truly no subsititute for being able to be physically present.  It’s times like these that make living abroad really difficult.

Travel Tips for Paris

I have no idea how helpful this will wind up being, but I wanted to share some things we discovered (some through research, some through trial and error, and others through dumb luck) that would have been useful to know ahead of time about sightseeing in Paris.

Paris Museum Pass. The pass can be purchased for 2, 4, or 6 consecutive days. It seems like a lot to pay up front. We bought the 4 day pass for 54 Euro each. It includes many of the major sights – Notre Dame (entrance to the church is free but climbing the towers isn’t), Versailles (probably the most expensive sight), the Louvre, the Pantheon and Les Invalides. The Eiffel Tower is not included. To figure out if it made sense for us, I wrote down all the things I knew we wanted to see, and added up their individual cost. That was significantly more than the 54E for the pass. Then I had to try to arrange our itinerary to make sure we could see all of those sights on 4 back-to-back days. This made for a really busy schedule, and a lot of planning and walking. For us though, we felt it was worth it.

The pass will allow you to avoid a line at some attractions, but not all. It’s also not always clear when that’s permitted and when it’s not, so watch carefully for signs and don’t be afraid to ask around.

Saint Chapelle. We didn’t visit on the day we were scheduled because the line was too long. We went back the next afternoon and saw another couple skip the line with their museum pass. There was NO sign indicating you could do this. So we walked right past everyone in line outside. Once you got past the ticket window, where we just showed our passes, there was yet another long line to get inside the church. Up ahead, we saw a somewhat marked path for museum pass holders, so we were again able to bypass a very long line to get inside. This was a favorite stop for both of us, and it’s not to be missed.

Versailles. We had every intention of being on an 8:15am train to Versailles to beat the crowd. Well, we slept in. Then we got on the wrong train. And then we picked the WORST station to turn around at because it took an hour. So, by the time we got there the line was insane. JR was confident we didn’t need to wait in it, because of our pass, but we were repeatedly told that the long line was for ticket and pass holders. And so we waited. FOREVER. Probably 90 minutes? And the truth is – I feel like this is something you aren’t supposed to admit – it kind of sucked. It was far too crowded to enjoy any of the rooms. We felt like we were cattle being herded from room to room.  With us being literally shoulder-to-shoulder with people moving through the different rooms, there was no time to appreciate it or truly look around. And the crowd around us seemed just as annoyed as us. My advice would be either MAKE SURE you can get there by say, 8:30am (doors open at 9), or a later time in the day to skip the crowds.

Notre Dame. We stayed on the island right beside Notre Dame on the River Seine, Ile St. Louis, so we walked past it almost every morning. The first morning we did our visit there. The church opens at 8am and the towers at 10. There was hardly anyone at the church when we arrived at 8:30, and we didn’t ever see a line that early in the morning. We spent an hour in the church, and it was nice because it was not crowded at all. Around 9:30, we walked outside and got in line for the towers. That line probably had 25 people in it, although it started to grow steadily after we joined. By the time we made our way up the tower and looked down at the entrance to the church, there was a pretty long line just to get in. So go early!

Where to stay. A friend recommended that we try to stay on the Ile St. Louis in the center of the city near Notre Dame. A quick search of hotels showed it to be a very pricey location. JR suggested that we try to rent an apartment since we’d be staying for a whole week. We reasoned that an apartment would give us more space, allow us to possibly eat-in a few meals, and hopefully would be more affordable than a hotel. We used airbnb.com and found the perfect place. Well, minus the fact that it was on the 4th floor with no elevator, which really kills your legs after a full day of walking around the city. But we loved the apartment and felt like we picked a perfect spot.

Rick Steves’ Audio Tours. Another friend suggested that we download Rick Steves’ Audio Tours for our iPhones. We downloaded his app first (which is free) and then downloaded his Historic Paris Walking Tour, the Louvre, and Versailles. We really enjoyed having these to listen to while we explored the city. It saved money on getting the audio guides, and it gave us some interesting tidbits that we wouldn’t have known. I highly recommend checking out his website to see what other locations he has available.

Vaux le Vicomte If you are interested in visiting Vaux, there are some tours that leave directly from Paris or you can travel there on your own. We took a 25 minute train ride from Gare de Lyon to Melun, and then we were able to get a taxi right outside the Melun train station. It was a ten minute (and to JR’s chagrin, 20 Euro) cab ride to Vaux from the station. The staff at Vaux called for a cab pick up when we were done with our visit.

In general, we had difficulty using our credit card at the train station and metro stops. It was very hit or miss. Those machines would accept cash, but only coin. This was fine for the 1.70 Euro metro ticket (a great deal) but for longer trips, we needed the ticket window to be open to use our credit card. It caused us to miss a train because we couldn’t get our ticket purchased in time. We found the city to be quite walkable, we’d either walk all day, or take the metro to one destination and walk everywhere from there. The only time we took a cab was in Melun.

Also, eat as many crepes as you can from the street vendors. You can’t go wrong with a nutella and banana crepe!

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Vaux le Vicomte

This post is pretty gushy, so just a warning if you want to click out and pretend you never saw it.

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I loved studying French in high school. I think 2 years was required, a third year was recommended if you were headed to college, and French IV was completely optional. There were maybe 8 of us in the French IV class. By my senior year, I had enough credits that I could leave school at noon and be done for the day. The problem was that French IV was only offered 8th period. Faced with that choice, I left school every day at noon and went to one of my part time jobs for a few hours (waitressing for the lunch crowd at a cafe) and then returned to school faithfully every day (okay, almost every day) for 8th period French class. I loved the class, and I absolutely adored my teacher.

I’m not certain if it was in French III or IV, but we did projects on a location in Paris, and I either picked or was assigned Vaux le Vicomte. It’s a chateau located outside of the city, built from 1658 to 1661 for Nicholas Fouquet, the superintendent of finances for King Louis XIV. Unfortunately, the good man Fouquet tried to impress the King and others with his fancy chateau and instead wound up making the King jealous, and suspicious of how he was paying for it all. Fouquet hosted a grand party to celebrate the chateau, and while the King celebrated with him publicly, behind his back he made plans to have him arrested for using public funds. Shortly after the party Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for the rest of his life (19 years), and the King confiscated furniture, tapestries, and even the orange trees from Vaux le Vicomte. He was so impressed with the chateau that he also had the team that built Vaux Vicomte get started on his own, slightly more famous palace, Versailles.

So things did not turn out well for Fouquet. But this beautiful home was built and I was in love with it. My 18 year old self firmly believed that I could get married there some day, and my independently wealthy husband-to-be would fly all of our family and friends to France to join us there. Clearly, it didn’t work out for me, although Eva Longoria pulled it off. (Sort of. She’s divorced now so I’m not sure if it counts).

The point of this story – because I swear there is a point – is that I loved this place and dreamed about seeing it in person. Yes, my dreams were a bit far-fetched. But only 10+ years later, it happened! When JR and I first began making travel plans, I asked him if we could take a day trip to see the chateau and he was excited about it.

Not only did I finally see Vaux le Vicomte in person, but I just felt so lucky to be there and to be living this life that we’re living. There is really nothing in my life that is how I pictured it might be, back when I was daydreaming in school. Well, that’s not true. The specifics are way different (I don’t know that I knew what a Foreign Service Officer was back then. Or where to find Kosovo on a map.) But the big picture stuff – I’m married to a truly wonderful person that I love with all of my heart, I have amazing friends and family, and I’m going to be a mom soon – that stuff all came true, even though the road to get here has been very different than I imagined.

While we were walking around the grounds, I just kept thinking of this quote from Sweet Home Alabama.

It’s funny how things don’t turn out.
…Yeah, it’s funny how they do.

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J’aime Paris

Way back at the end of July, we made the spontaneous decision to spend a week in Paris during the holidays. We had no idea of the big changes coming our way over the next few months, but the tickets were booked and we were going to spend New Year’s Eve in Paris! JR and I have both been to Paris before but we wanted to experience the city together. Plus, I wanted to work on my French language skills long dormant from my high school classes.

As our departure date became closer, I told JR I would spend some time loosely researching the sights we wanted to see and making a plan. Well, once I started I couldn’t really control myself and the next thing I knew, we had a 9-page detailed itinerary that had us hauling butt all over Paris to see as much as possible.  I am so my mother’s daughter.   We stayed on the Ile St. Louis and had a wonderful time.

Paris in pictures.

Notre Dame

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Eiffel Tower

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Les Invalides

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Rodin’s The Thinker

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Saint Chapelle

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View of the Louvre and Siene

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Gardens at Versailles

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My favorite crepe maker

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Sacre Coeur on New Year’s Eve

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Christmas Markets and Arc de Triomphe in the background

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525,600 Minutes

That’s how long we’ve been married. Happy Anniversary to my wonderful husband JR!

A few wedding pictures:

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We spent the day yesterday doing some of our favorite things. For me, that meant sitting poolside with my friends, drinking a strawberry margarita, and discussing celebrity gossip. JR hung out with his friends and learned how to bottle homebrew. Everybody wins!

Although we didn’t plan it this way, we are considering our anniversary gift to be the plane tickets we bought for our next big trip to be our gift to each other. We’re going to Paris over the holidays!

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