A Travellerspoint blog



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My last five nights in Berlin, I moved out to the East of Mitte, to another really good hostel, East Seven. It was really sociable, and had a happy hour on beer (these two things couldn't possibly be connected), so I'd come in at about 10:00 and settle in with a delicious black lager. One evening I got talking to a mother and daughter- they were probably ten years either side of my age, from the south west of Germany. I'm not exactly sure what I did to provoke it, but when they went off to bed, the mother said she'd never met anyone like me (in a good way, I'm sure!). Another evening, I was most entertained by a young fellow, from somewhere in the North of England, who worked in an office for (I think) a local authority, and he hated his job so much he'd rather die than go back to it, but he was devastatingly funny about why he hated his job - a combination of Microsoft Word and the inanity he had to deal with from others. One big regret was that I wasn't staying just a bit longer - the hostel would provide food and accommodation for people willing to cook dinner for other residents - a Canadian girl was quite keen to do it, and somehow she picked on me to sort out her menu. Quite randomly, a bloke reckoned I look like Karl Marx- now that I've seen some pictures, it might take a little work but I've not far to go.
I'd start each morning with a coffee and pain au raisin at the Impala cafe, just down the street - the decor was sort of concrete 1970's industrial lunchroom, the chairs were a bit like the metal legged chairs from my school, but the coffee was good and the staff were fun: I made the mistake of asking for my pain au raisin in German - I don't speak German, but stumbled through a reading on the label. It was a mistake because every morning after that, they wouldn't give me one unless I asked for it in German. Then I'd walk through a different way to the library, such as past all the very impressive museums on Museum Island, or the shopping streets, or quieter residential streets which would have cool looking bars and cafes and second hand shops crammed full of stuff which I'd wish I had time to indulge myself in.
It was even worse on the way home, when they were open. Each morning, I'd wander off to do some work - I tried the American library (it was funded by the Americans to help Germany get back on its feet after the war) first, because it is huge, but turned out to only occupy the ground floor and have no wifi. I also paid 12 Euro for the privilege of using the State Library, which was very quiet and very white and futuristic but I couldn't get their wifi to work. Then I learned about Humboldt University , which was founded in the early 19th century - given its location and age, I thought the library would be quite special, and it was, but not in the way I expected. It is a monolithic concrete building which opened in 2009. The interior is really well designed, I thought. Each floor is made of three parts - the third running along each wall has books and a staircase, and the central third is a quiet study space, but it is tiered, a bit like the seating in a stadium. The photo will explain it much better than I can.
I think I would enjoy an extended break in Berlin, I felt quite at home here - the only bad experience I had was in a Japanese restaurant near the Humboldt, where they had a very strange interpretation of the dish I asked for but, even worse, neither of the staff I dealt with said a word to me. The most excellent coffee shop next door, Pure Origins, made up for the lack of service.

A few years ago, I read DBC Pierre's wonderful satire on the excesses of modern life, Lights Out in Wonderland. About half of it is set in the former Tempelhof airport where, according to the Guardian review

the novel blossoms into a sort of insane, rococo wedding planner for a tumultuous and orgiastic banquet in the bowels of Nazi-built Tempelhof airport – all organised by Gabriel and Laxalt; they will cater for bankers whose Lear jets taxi to the very gates of Tempelhof and into a double bluff.

It made me curiously nostalgic for an airport I'd never seen and would never be able to fly into, so when I learned that you can take tours through the airport, I jumped at the chance. There has been an airport on the site since the 1920's, before then it was a public park, and the runway area has been returned to being a public park. The building of the main terminal did not start until 1934, as a symbol of the might and glory of Hitler's "world capital", Germania. That being the case, it had to be pretty special, and although it was never completely finished, there was a kind of stark grandeur to the place. It was an odd experience being in a deserted airport, and a building which is among the 20 biggest in the world, but I'm so glad I did it. The tour started underneath the airport, where the baggage goes in and up escalators to passengers in the main concourse, then, despite the cold and threatening rain, we spent a fair amount of time outside, on the apron. One of the great things about Tempelhof is that the planes just rolled up to the back door, where it was covered, so passengers had no distance to walk - no need for an airbridge. This approach was one of the reasons the place closed - modern aircraft don't fit.
The aeroplane in the picture was one used in the early days of the Berlin airlift - the Russians had blockaded Berlin in an effort to gain exclusive control, but under an earlier agreement had left open three 20-mile wide air corridors providing access to the city which not even they would go back on. The estimate was that 3500 tonnes of supplies were needed. Every day. The DC3 could carry 3.5 tonnes, the C-54 had a payload of 10 tonnes, and eventually took over as the only aircraft used. Conditions were problematic - for one runway, the planes had to fly between two apartment buildings and for the the other, fly over an apartment building and then drop sharply. The Russians did not play nicely. And yet the airlift was a success - on one day, as a special effort, they flew in 12,941 tonnes of supplies, mainly coal. In fifteen months, there were 277, 569 flights and 2.3 million tonnes supplied - shared between Tempelhof and Gatow. Our tour was enlivened by having a man on it who flew about 380 of these missions - I'm pretty sure he said it is first time back, aged 92.

Time to go inside, to the main concourse. The original grand vision had required this to be very high, but the need to get it operational meant that a false floor was built by the Americans cutting the height in half, and the pillars had to be marble and just so- almost more palace than functional airport.
The upper half has never been put to use and was never finished off. The top floor was to be a vast open air restaurant, from which the people could watch various spectacles. Again, this was not finished - the Americans adapted it to their use by building a bowling alley (subsequently removed) and basketball court. I can't remember who did it, but the picture represents the variety of life at Tempelhof during the airlift.
I do remember who did the next pictures - during the war, before Tempelhof was liberated by the Russians, part of the basement housed workers, essentially prisoners, who were required to work at the airport, and this is how they kept their spirits up.
The Russians were there for just a couple of months, but they did a thorough job of removing anything they wanted. Down in a another part of the basement, there was a bunker for filing important documents and, more significantly archival films. It was locked up pretty securely, so the Russians thought they'd found a treasure trove so, determined to gain entry, used explosives. Guess what happens when films are exposed to explosions? A mighty fire raged through the bunker and everything was lost.

The day was wet and a bit foggy and it was near the evening, so my photos of the outside are a bit dim:

Posted by NZBarry 16:02 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Berlin: City of Contrasts

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Somehow I failed to mention the early start I was forced to have on my first morning in Berlin. I was woken from a sound sleep at about 5:30 by the presence of two policemen in the room. One of the guys had his laptop stolen, from behind three locked doors, so naturally the most logical possibility was that one of us in the room had taken it. So we all had our stuff examined fairly thoroughly - it didn't seem to trouble the cops that bags smaller than laptops could not hold a laptop - they still got searched. I was a bit concerned about my own laptop - I hadn't left it out like the fellow who lost his, but was still relieved to find it.

I'd have been very happy to spend my whole week in Berlin at the Grand Hostel, even with that incident, but in the interests of seeing different bits had booked a night in a hotel in the very poshest part of Berlin, Charlottenberg, which is out to the West. The main street through this area, Kurfürstendamm, is Berlin's answer to the Champs-Élysées: block after block of high-end brand shopping, venerable hotels like the Kempinski, exotic car dealerships and the largest department store in Europe, the KaDeWe. Kurfürstendamm itself has had a checkered history as it had been where many Jewish businesses were established, and then it took numerous hits during the war. I read somewhere that when the Wall was (accidentally, it turns out) opened, Kurfürstendamm was one of the main thoroughfares used by those coming from the East. It wasn't until I was in Berlin that I ever heard about the accidental opening: the Government planned to open it, but hadn't quite decided when. Some minion was put on TV to announce the plan and when he was asked what the time frame was, he shuffled through his papers, mumbled a bit and announced "now"! Guards on a couple of the gates packed up and went home and the wall was history.

Although I was staying in a posh area, I couldn't really justify the cost of the Kempinski or any of the other nice hotels in the area - I found a cheap room in the Pensione Hotel Funk, on a side street, opposite the grandly named Berlin Literaturhaus, which turned out to be a cafe, not a fancy library. I'm not saying that my room was small, but I had to rent a separate room for my luggage. It was a pleasant enough place to stay, and I liked the honesty system with the beer - it was kept in the fridge with a notepad beside it for guests to indicate their purchases. The outside looked like this
I wandered the streets, found a stationery shop that actually sells writing paper (impossible to find in any of the Scandinavian cities, even in Office-Max type stores): I resisted the temptation to buy any pens, but was not so resistant to ink and made the first of a couple of visits to KaDeWe (where the pens were somehow more tempting, and besides, I'd just bought ink - surely something was needed to put it in). The top floor is entirely given over to food and drink and was awash with people, so I had a quick beer and departed. It was quite dark, so my one photo of Kurfürstendamm is not very revealing.
I was near the Tiergarten, the second biggest urban garden or park in Germany, so popped over in the morning to check it out - pretty wintry, with more trees than actual garden. It is bisected by roads which intersect at the Victory Column, which marks the 19th century Prussian victories that created a unified Germany. It is 67 metres high, above which sits "Golden Lizzie" (Goldelse) although it is actually Victoria, the Roman Goddess of Victory, not the British monarch. All the way round the base, various friezes depict some of the battles. There was a nice wee restaurant in the park, very busy, where I had a hearty sausage and bean stew to keep me going.
Every time I walked past the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, it puzzled me, as I could see that it was obviously broken (it took quite a beating during the war, and really it is just the spire left), but seemed to still be in use. Someone I spoke to said that when they built a new church around it, there were plans to pull down the spire, but the congregation and the general public wants it kept the way it is, as a way of respecting the Kaiser. It is right in the middle of a bunch of new buildings so I could not get far away enough to get a decent photo. I was amused by the juxtaposition with a nearby building in a completely different style.
Berlin has many things for the tourist to see and do, and there was no way I could have seen them all had I wanted to, but I found two things that I really wanted to see. One was these rather innocuous buildings
During the war, the top one was used as a kitchen and canteen, the second was purpose built a little bit later - they are Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison. After the war, the Russians had control of this part of Berlin and, obviously, needed somewhere they could house and deal with political prisoners. So the basement of the top building was converted to small, bare concrete cells - no window, no real access to air, a single small light that would be turned on at random times to create the idea it was day-time, no bedding, no toilet - which would house dozens of people. They called it the U-Boot, or submarine. The Russians were pretty indiscriminate as to who they'd imprison and where they'd put them - so there were old people, young people, men, women, people of all political stripes all housed in the same room. The average time people spent here was 6 months, but one fellow was here for 28 months. The youngest was 4 years old; one girl of 14 was put in because, being a teenager, she thought it would be funny to put lipstick on a photo of a man - who turned out to be Stalin. She had no idea. They were all tried before a court, but the court was in Russia, while they stayed in the submarine and had no idea what was happening. A common charge seems to have been endangering world peace. A lot of work as been done to find these people and ask about their experiences - obviously horrible, but the surprising thing was the way they'd group, despite their differences. There was no subtlety to the way they were treated, or interrogated/beaten to get the "truth" out of them. There is probably no need for a photo of a small, square concrete cell.
The Soviets used this from 1946 - 1951, when the East German authorities took over and built the lower building. Their strategy was completely different - the inside didn't look worse than many hostels I've stayed in, and they abandoned all forms of physical abuse as counter-productive as the results produced could not be trusted as the truth.
The inmates were questioned in somewhat normal looking offices - hundreds of them - and a psychological approach was used, mainly based on rewards - promises of nice things for family members for co-operation, for example. It remained a prison until after the Wall came down - the last inmates were released three weeks later, and no-one told them. The surrounding housing was all occupied by friendlies - prison guards, employees of the secret service, soldiers and so on - and the whole place was off the map completely, just didn't exist. People were brought in in vehicles like this one
Some of the guards still live in the neighbourhood, as do some of the former inmates - so they encounter each other in the streets. Some of the guards go on the tours through Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and have a rather different view of matters. I read of one blogger who went through, a young woman from Russia was on the same tour and couldn't accept what she was being told.

All in all, while there was very little to see, apart from the masses of offices still as they were left and a few cells still set up in the modern version of the prison, I was very glad to have done this. For something just a little different, that evening I went to the KaDeWe for a good look round. It was much quieter than my earlier visit, so I was able to sit down for a meal - I'll just finish with some photos - nothing needs to be said, really, except that the lamb chops I had for dinner were from New Zealand.

Posted by NZBarry 16:29 Archived in Germany Comments (2)

And now its off to Berlin I go

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Going by train from Copenhagen to Berlin doesn't look logical, or even possible - the bit of Denmark containing Copenhagen does not connect by land with mainland Europe. There are a couple of long bridges, but the gap between Denmark and Germany is at least 20 km (more than 50 if you go in via Rostock). I guess you could go via Finland and St Petersburg but it would take forever. So there's a ferry but, unusually, passengers don't get off the train to get onto the ferry - the train goes on the ferry as well. It is a 45 minute trip - just long enough to go to the buffet restaurant, make a hurried selection of random bits of meat and vege then eat frenziedly because you don't want to leave a half full plate behind. I like to have a beer with my food, and thought that since i was helping myself to food, I'd just grab the beer from the fridge. The staff had other ideas - one woman actually slapped me! I tried to find out what bit of Germany we landed on but the crew member I asked had no better idea than I had.

After a quick change of trains in Hamburg, I finally arrived in Berlin's main train station just after dark. It is a huge station, about five levels, very bright and quite difficult to navigate. As with all of the stations I've been in Europe so far, there's a charge to get into the bathroom but I had no Euros and, after wandering all five floors, had failed to find an ATM - had to ask for help. Then it was time to work out how to leave - luckily I knew the train I needed and found a printed noticeboard indicating which platform it left from. So, something that should have been a quick transition took more than an hour to accomplish.

The hostel I chose was fantastic - a classic old building in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin - where the staff greeted me with a free beer. The lounge area was among the best I've ever seen in a hostel. The law firm next door had an interesting feature in its atrium.
Kreuzberg is quite new in Berlin history - built to house workers in the 19th century, it was a pretty poor area through until the 1970's (and quite industrial before then but took quite a hammering during the war). It was a bit cut off from the rest of Berlin because it was enclosed on three sides by the Wall. Through the 1960's, this was one of the places to be - it became ground zero for the German punk scene:this is where David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the like came and hung out, thanks to the legendary SO36 club. It is likely that the Berlin that formed in my imagination from reading about this period was actually Kreuzberg. More recently it has had a flood of immigration, mainly Turkish, and because it is cheap, lots of artists, hippies and musicians have moved in. Now, apparently it is very on-trend. It is an area I should have explored more thoughtfully - done some research and made a plan. I was given directions at the hostel where to find the beating heart of Kreuzberg, but took several wrong turns and never found it - unless they meant the "Sports Bar" I came across with three old men crowded around an old CRT TV.

So I just wandered to see where I'd end up. One of the first things I noticed was that, despite beer and bars being so much cheaper than Scandinavia and despite it being really rather cold, lots of people were drinking in the streets - they'd randomly form little groups at the side of the footpath, and upon departure leave a little cairn of cans and bottles. My walk took me north to Potsdamer-Platz and across to Checkpoint Charlie (quite accidentally, and since I was just looking for dinner, I had no camera with me). I'm convinced that somewhere in my wander I saw one of the few pieces of the Wall still standing but when I went looking for it in the daylight, I couldn't find it.

Just along from the street, there's an enormous museum, the Museum of Technology, which is where I spent my first day in Berlin. It is an old industrial site and goods yard - the old buildings have lots of trains - so many that I actually lost a bit of interest, partly because they were crammed in so tightly and had such bright lighting I couldn't get decent photos.
There is also a historic, functioning brewery (closed when I visited, unfortunately) and it features various technologies, including printing, textiles and photography. My parents had one of these cameras - the Kodak Instamatic - and I enjoyed a linger in the printing room. Quite coincidentally, I'm reading Arnold Bennett's Claymore at the moment, and it presents a glorious (and very funny) account in a Victorian printery (it is a little known fact about me that my preferred career would be to be a Victorian printer).
Kodak Instamatic

Kodak Instamatic

There is also a main, quite new, multi-storey building featuring computing, boating and aircraft. Looking at the computers, I'd have no clue how to make them work, but I bet they'd not be capable of much.
There were a few boats, although only a couple caught my eye. I don't think I'd have liked being in the sub (a "Biber") very much - not just because they are so small, but they went into production within six weeks of being ordered and had a few "technical flaws" - almost impossible to steer and to maintain trim, an unusable periscope, plus there's the petrol engine the pilot had to share the space with. No wonder the navy fed the pilots speed to keep them alert. The speedboat looks more fun.
Although they called the exhibit aerospace, the theme of aircraft collection is subtitled from ballooning to the Berlin airlift (no Zeppelin, but there was an advertising reel of one in action). The only balloon was a model of something I suspect would not fly. Otto Lilienthal is a big name in early German aviation - not powered flight, but gliding machines, inspired by birds.
Of course, there were lots of German aircraft - these are the ones I had some vague knowledge of
Heinkel He 162

Heinkel He 162

Focke Wulf A 16

Focke Wulf A 16

Lufthansa Junkers Ju 52

Lufthansa Junkers Ju 52

Messerschmitt Bf110

Messerschmitt Bf110

Two aircraft deserve special mention - neither are German, neither are unique, but both had a story attached to them. The first one is a Dakota/DC3 - quite a popular aircraft in its day. This particular one was used in the Berlin airlift (more on this next time). The Cessna 172 is the biggest selling aircraft ever made (even I have flown one), but this one is famous. In 1987 Mathias Rust decided to take it on a bit of a trip - through Finland and Iceland. But on 28 May 1987 he, ah, landed it in Red Square, in central Moscow, which is more than 500 miles inside the former USSR. It was no idle prank:

I thought every human on this planet is responsible for some progress and I was looking for an opportunity to take my share in it. I was thinking I could use the aircraft to build an imaginary bridge between West and East to show that a lot of people in Europe wanted to improve relations between our worlds."

There's a story on DW news with actual footage of the 'plane careening between the cars:

Road transport is in a separate building, mainly cars, with a few oddities, such as the wee car that looks the same from the front as the back, and the NSU Ro 80 which was so unreliable that when drivers of these cars met each other on the motorway, they'd hold up some fingers - one for each time they'd had to replace the engine. There were a few motorbikes, of sorts - nothing normal like a BMW road bike. The taxi is typical of what you'd see in Berlin at the end of the 19th century.
large_IMG_0337.jpglarge_IMG_0341.jpgMaico Mobile

Maico Mobile



There were a few handsome vehicles as well - a Benz, a NAG Protos (result of a joint venture between AEG and Siemens), and the indestructible Mercedes 190D.

Posted by NZBarry 17:09 Archived in Germany Comments (0)


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I specifically sorted it out in my head that I was not coming to Dresden. With only two days remaining before my flight out of Hamburg, it seemed more sensible to make my way straight there, rather than overnight in two different cities. But plans must give way to realities; when I requested a ticket from Prague to Hamburg, the shock of the price nearly killed me (I knew from the website it was 30 Euro, but they wanted more than a hundred, because I was not booking far enough in advance). So I booked through to Dresden, thinking I’d work out a solution. As it happens, I was early enough to take advantage of the book in advance fare from Dresden.

The trip there was fantastic, one of the best I’ve been on. The train was new and very smooth, I had good company in my compartment (a pair of students from Sydney Eurailing their holidays away, and an older couple – he was French and oh so dignified looking, she was Czech and had a touch of the glam, they lived in Hannover) and the scenery was wonderful. We followed a river plain most of the way, with steep banks up to either side of us, mostly tree clad but with dead flat areas of river flat. All heavily laden with snow and the sun was out, making the world sparkle.

Apparently it hasn’t snowed like this here for eight years, so it was quite a treat (even if my Australian companions objected to their freezing feet, they admitted the views were worth it). The only small blemish on the trip was the price of things on the train; six bucks for a Pepsi (cheapest thing on the menu) and I only had half that in local currency.

Dresden is an odd sort of place. Not long after we crossed the border into Germany, we struck some buildings that made me think this has to be the dreariest place I have ever seen – apartment blocks and hotels these indistinguishable six story concrete boxes.

Much to my surprise, this was Dresden. Of course, it was nearly completely obliterated by the Allies towards the end of the war, so there is very little of old Dresden to see, just one section of the inner city
including a couple of churches (one rebuilt),
an art gallery
and the Zwinger (Palace).

But whatever was built in its place seems to have gone also – the main thoroughfare leading from the train station is very modern, not Stalinist at all (silly guidebook)
and so too are the apartments leading towards my (huge) hostel,
which seems to follow the house style for Dresden, based on a zero budget for design. The interior is very reminiscent of a hospital; it is huge with long corridors (I was thinking of Maxwell Smart at one point) and virtually empty.

Arriving fairly late in the day (we had a delay while they did something with the train engine) I didn’t have much time for sightseeing and besides, I was curiously in the mood for some serious shopping. I have been SO good, bought nothing except for cold weather gear. Haven’t even bought books (oops, yes, I snuck one in in Singapore). And Dresden has these two amazing clothing stores – they’re five or six stories, entirely given over to clothes. In the first, I saw something I’ve wanted for a long time, a dark, fine corduroy jacket. The only reason I didn’t buy it was that I know some people object to such things, and while I can’t see it, I can see that a corduroy suit is a bit of a no go area. But, well, I went into the second store and they had an even nicer one and it was SO cheap (under a hundred Euros). So, I own a corduroy suit. And a couple of corduroy shirts. Sue me.

By this time, I couldn’t really face going to a nice place for dinner, so I foodcourted it, on chips and schnitzel. Nice beer, but. I’ve decided that pretty much everything is improved by beer, even drowning.

By about 10:30 I was feeling a bit stir crazy in my empty hostel, so wandered over to what is called the New Town, which has a reputation for being very alternative. For a while, I couldn’t see it, as I wandered this long street of banality but I found that the further I deviated from it, the more interesting things got. My guidebook had suggested a place called Raskalnikov (the name alone sold it for me) and for once I managed to get somewhere without getting lost, only to find that this was a peculiar sort of café, as it sold no beer. No matter, I wandered up the lane a couple of doors and found a bar called, I think, Side Door. The perfect sort of place; walls and ceiling a deep red, a nice wooden bar, maybe a dozen booths, people eating, playing cards, talking, Tom Waits on the stereo. After midnight the place was still going strong, but it was time for me to call it a night as I had a fairly long (and very cold) walk back.

My cheap train trip to Hamburg had one small complication; they’d sold out of cheap fares on the direct services, so I went for one which involved three changes, one with a bare six minute space between trains. Sure enough, the train to make that connection left six minutes late and was 18 minutes late by the time we got to it. But big ups to German Railways. They could have just said, well there’s another train running that same connection due in an hour. It is all I hoped for, but they found a way to get me to Hamburg a little quicker. They put me on a normal train to Hannover, but from there, they put me on their premium train (the one that goes more than 200 k an hour) and they put me in FIRST CLASS. While thanking German Rail, I should also thank them for their website, which gives pretty comprehensive train information for all of Europe.

One consolation I had hoped to derive from my roundabout journey to Hamburg was a good look at the countryside. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I can report that the northern half of Germany was extremely flat and covered in snow and its train stations seem to have good bakeries.

My knowledge of Hamburg is about as detailed. I got in about 7:00, found my way to the right metro stop for my hostel, then got lost for more than an hour, trying to correlate the directions I was given with the map and with the reality of the ground I was walking over. Turns out that they were all wrong; if I had been told that the hostel was that gorgeous building directly above the station, and has steps directly to it from the station, it could have saved a lot of bother. So it was about 9:30 before I was finally able to set off for the Reeferbahn in search of something people don’t often go there for, an internet café. It is Hamburg’s notorious street of sleaze – peepshows, table dances, cinema and who knows what else. Luckily I found the internet café under my own resources, because the area the fellow in the hostel sent me to was decidedly not where you’d find an internet café.

Something else I know about Hamburg – it has a harbour, I am sitting here in the hostel looking directly at it. Not that I am convinced that a harbour can happen on a river bank, but no matter. It is very colourful and great to just sit and look at (not so much in the early morning):

And the hostel itself is great,
has a nice bar, good number of people in. A nice place to finish off my trip across Europe, because it is now time to catch my flight to London.

Posted by NZBarry 16:41 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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