Through the looking glass

Yesterday I felt like Alice. I spent all day in a meeting at the other worldly Hotel de Rothschild in the swanky 8th arrondisement, surrounded by fashionistas from across the globe. I saw stilettos so tall, the front sole was on a 2 inch platform. I saw the classic Chanel bag in about 16 different variations, and every shade of black known to man on every chic fabric wearable, including plastic.

I read a text message from Mr French in my mad dash home to make dinner for Em, who was celebrating because she had her second article published in The Girls Guide to Paris. The text popped up just as was posting the above link on FB, tweeting it, and using every venue available to me to promote me kid shamelessly. It said, “cocktail tonight… gardens in the Grand Palais, we’ll leave at 8pm.”

At the appointed hour, I headed downstairs, hopped into his car and we were off through the pouring rain. It was coming down in sheets when we arrived 15 minutes later and there was a traffic snarl with cops everywhere. What to do? Use the valet parking at the Mini Palais restaurant, of course! Which meant I had to lie to the valet parker and tell him we had reservations for the evening. I am only sharing this little detail because confessing it makes me feel like maybe I won’t burn in hell for not telling the truth!

Alice sized mushrooms!Hopping over puddles in my 3 inch high heels was something of a challenge, and Mr French had a good laugh over the meandering path I had to take. But we made it.

Shaking the rain off my shoulders I looked in wonder at the garden that had sprouted inside this glass domed monument. A bamboo forest grew in one corner, a 1000 yr old olive tree in another. There was a fantastical treehouse spiraling up from the middle of the room and a larger than life, a Barbie pink mansion to the far right. In the middle was a corral or artist decorated bicycles and a sprawling field full of picnic scenes and mini Fiat cars. There was some photography and beautiful watercolors by a man from Lyon, Vincent Jeannerot. A Monet style water lily garden, larger than life mushroom composters, plated chandeliers, Bijoux pine trees and countless other organic treasures that really did turn the place into a Wonderland!

Polly in Paris!!

Its The Art of Gardening at the Grand Palais until June 3, with a supplementary show in the Tuileries Gardens and it was a spectacular breath of fresh air in Paris!

more Flore

A few weeks ago I posted photos of the elegant, rather pampered folk who are willing to stand on the boul St Germain patiently waiting for a table on the terrace of the Flore. The inside may be completely empty as posers and voyeurs like myself wait for a prime spot; a table with a view. Today, for the first time ever, I had to wait my turn.

In a very UnFrench way, people wait their turn here. In a very French way, they refuse to wait in line, but stand there dispersed, keeping an eye out for who arrives when. They are un-stereotypically civil about waiting their turn.

So I stood there waiting, completely relaxed knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about someone pushing their way in, pleasantly chatting with the waiter Dominique and watching the crowds, when two ladies with leopard-spotted silk scarves paid their bill.

“Attend,” he warns me. “Don’t get too excited, they’re enjoying making you wait.”

So I wait, and another couple is waiting, casually leaning against a sea-foam green Renault, when a very scruffy looking, local guy shows up with his kid. He is clearly seeking a table, prowling between the place where the civilized wait and the lucky bathe in the luxury of their table with a view. My radar goes up. He is being très uncool. He starts chatting up the two ladies in their leopard scarves and suddenly, they are giving him their place.

I pop up, “Excuse me, I was waiting for this table.”
“I was waiting, too.”
“Yes, but I was waiting much longer than you”.
The leopard ladies try to help him out… “Non, non, we assure you, he was waiting.”

I don’t care about the reinforcements, I am already seated. “Listen, I was waiting. If you have your doubts, go ask Dominique, the waiter.” I am relieved to have had a witness. There is no way both of us missed this guy as we stood there watching for ten minutes. I was there first.

He yells at me and I repeat, “Ask the waiter.”

The waiter for our section simply refuses to get involved. He is not Dominique.
The man is irate, he grabs his kid’s hand, storming off as he shouts, “You know, we can’t take living in France much longer because of people like you.

At this point I start feeling badly about having deprived the sad, washed out looking kid of a place to rest his feet and enjoy a snack. Italian – Jewish mother syndrome. Then, I remember the 50 empty seats just behind me, which confirms that the kid is sad and washed out looking because he’s stuck with that for a Dad. I happily order a guilt-free kir, as I sit and ponder exactly what he means by “people like you.” Did I just deprive a xenophobe of a seat? Does he think I’m an uppity Parisienne? Either way, I’m feeling pretty content with myself as the sun breaks for the first time in days.

Shine bright

When a good friend of mine was made redundant at work, the replacement agency that was helping her find a new job actually hired a fashion consultant to take clients shoe shopping. Shoes, according to the experts, are the most important thing you wear when going on a job interview in Paris.

I found this little bit of trivia amazing. I shared it with Mr French and the Parisiennes. But, of course, they concurred. C’est normal. If someone does not take care of their shoes, beh, they are just not serious. Which explains why even the seven year olds in the playground have perfectly polished shoes. My daughters’ friends; average teen boys, all have dress shoes. And wear them on a fairly regular basis. Its a national habit. But having nice shoes is just the beginning.

Shoe care starts immediately upon leaving the shoe store, when Mr French asks if we have waterproofing spray at home. At first, I thought this was a joke. He buys some fairly expensive shoes, and is worried about waterproofing? Don’t you buy them that way and the stuff wears off with time? Non ! When you buy a pair of shoes in Paris, you’ve got to waterproof them before you can ever wear them. And then waterproof them again, every 6-8 weeks for the rest of their lives.

And since they are nice shoes, they will most likely have leather soles. The problem with leather soles is that they are fragile and need to be protected.  You’ve just spent several hundred euros on a pair of shoes, you would think, you would HOPE that they were ready to wear for years to come. But no, after wearing those brand new, gorgeous leather soles exactly five times you are off to the cobbler’s protecting the soles and putting taps on the heels.

At last, you can finally enjoy wearing your shoes; sashaying through the city streets, crossing your legs ‘just so’ at the local café, bobbing your ankle at exactly the right rhythm to appreciate your stunning footwear and generally feeling chicer than the widow of the deposed president of a tropical island state. But wait. Is that a scuff over your left pinkie toe? Damn, did that stumble in the paving stones eat into your leather-lined heel? One day on the town and already you need… a shoe shine.

Fortunately, that is when Frenchmen come into the picture. On any given Sunday night, men throughout the city are taking out their shoe shine kits and getting ready to polish their shoes. I know CEOs of multi-national corporations with full time help who choose to shine their own shoes. Bankers, lawyers, the waiters at your favorite café, and even the gentleman who delivers my groceries, shine their shoes. Every week! “Its relaxing” they claim. “I enjoy it.” They insist. Whatever. I, for one, am happy to contribute to this relaxing moment by adding some shoes of my own. And of course, every morning as he heads out the door, Mr French stoops down, polishing cloth in hand, giving his shoes their daily caress before I get my kiss goodbye.

There is a specific routine to proper shoe shining, but in France, it is like the BBQ, almost exclusively a man’s realm. I suppose I could get all self-righteous about women’s equality, and demand to know more, but really, I’d rather let them have this one. Shine away, Monsieurs! Shine bright!

For everything from animal skins to heel forms to make your own shoes, or just a bit of polish in any color imaginable/ BHV

Bac parenting

From strollers...

Yesterday I wrote about the thrills and wonders of the French Bac. As a Mom who grew up in the US, I’ll never know what it is to write the bac. This shocks the natives. “Quoi? You didn’t pass your bac? What did your parent’s say? How did you succeed in life? Wow, your writing must be total crap!” They can’t seem to wrap their minds around the fact that I don’t have my bac because in my country, they didn’t offer the bac to public high school students. So I sigh, assuring them that I got into UCLA, so I couldn’t be a total idiot. They remain skeptical.

to independence

Even now, decades later, the bac effects the adults around me. Mr French has been yelling at me for weeks about not being strict enough with E as she studies. We’re talking about a kid who gives herself a curfew, reads poetry for kicks and has already gotten into a fantastic university. Just last night he nearly fainted when he discovered that I had not thought of getting new batteries for her calculator, just in case the original batteries happen to die in the middle of her math exam.

My Parisiennes are in a tizzy, too. Some have taken off work for the week to be there 24/7 for Jean-Jacques as he crams. Others have fled to the countryside, abolishing any possibility of an potential distraction for little Georgette. These are the very same Moms who would encourage these very same kids to stay in the playground unsupervised for hours when they were in grade school and who let their minor children head to the French Alps for a week of ski and brewski on the slopes, without helmets or adult supervision. In June of their kid’s senior year, these mamans break forth from their cocoons and spread the wings of parental protection over their developing caterpillars as they inch along in their studies (guess which subject we’ve just reviewed for the science exam…)

they'll always be kids!

This week they are stuck to the stove, preparing hot, healthy breakfasts, lunches and dinners and they read and review the philosophy subjects, so they are up to the task of testing and challenging the petit Louis. Pharmacists recommend brain energizing plants, waiters in cafés start shouting merde (the French version of break a leg) and the whole neighborhood gets into the act.

If all goes well, Marie Claire will be going into a very excellent Cours Prépa, or a place called Science Po. Which means the students will be living at home for the next few years and all this parental coddling has just begun. Of course, I am jealous, because my daughter will be going half way across the globe to pursue her studies. I can’t complain, because I set myself up for this, but its not easy, either.

Especially, when I get the French reaction. They think it is fairly nuts and bordering on irresponsible. I try to explain that it is an American tradition; we’ve been chasing our freshly adult children off to the wild frontier, in search of new territories, since the foundation of our country. We say it is for their own good. It helps them develop. But even to my own ears, this is starting to ring untrue. Have you smelled a growing teen recently? Tried to keep one fed? Universities have coin-operated washing machines and meal plans. Could it be, as the Parisiennes suspect? Was the American university system established to maintain the sanity of the nation’s parents?

A Children's Paradise

Now, excusez-moi, as I go prepare E’s meal. Something no mother should be doing for her legally adult child who is not eating with the family, but I am afraid they may revoke my citizenship if I refuse to comply (and I really do want her to do well.)

Get Bac!

The French think, therefore they are...

Everyday my daughter goes online and reads posts from American and Canadian friends who are heading off to jobs at summer camp, going on vacation, or savouring the end of their high school careers. It is not the highlight of her day as she bunkers down and studies for the baccalaureate exams.

The French bac is a series of maybe 12 oral and written exams given in three or four languages at the end of a student’s junior and senior years. Their entire high school career depends on the results of these exams and will play a large role in each student’s future. And since the essay exams are often four hour tests in which a student responds to one or two questions, a lot can go wrong very quickly.

For students going to the US, there is less pressure. They simply need to pass their bac. Those going to England or Canada have been given a minimum grade required by their university. 14 or 15 points maybe required, which is difficult, but not impossible. For students continuing on in France, it is much more complicated and they won’t even know all of their options before mid-July.

Understanding the bac could almost require a degree of its own. There are three different baccalaureates. Science, Social-Economics and Literature. Some of these bacs are more prestigious than others. Each subject of the bac is assigned a value, called a coefficient. The coeff may have a different value for the same exam, depending on which bac you are taking. For example, French is coeff 2 for SE students, but 3 for L students. The results of a test with a coeff 7 are much more important than the results of an exam with a coeff 4. The coeff determines the importance of a exam in calculating the students final grade, because at the end of all those exams, that’s what you get, one final grade. No pressure there.

And if all that is not complicated enough, each bac also has a series of specialties and optional exams that allow students to earn extra points, with subjects like Ancient Greek, or Music. There is also an Option Internationale for all baccalaureate candidates striving for that extra challenge. With the OI, students may find themselves studying from a French language text book for an English language history exam.

As this blog posts, every French high school senior in the country has just finished their first* their major épreuve, the Philosophy exam; 4 hours, 1 question, ready, set, GO…. Each bac (S, SE, or L) has a different set of questions to choose from. Questions like; Does art change our perception of reality? Are politics a science or an art? Is communication the only use of language? Can we know the truth? Why protect the weak?

The entire country spends the next three days discussing the questions and expounding for hours over all the possible replies. It tops the news of the day, takes over business meetings and dominates dinner conversation. Bringing all of France together in an annual exercise of deep thought. As soon as the questions are made public today, I’ll be heading to the Flore to eavesdrop on philosophers like Bernard-Henri Lévy and hear how they would have answered. But if I didn’t have to stay close to home, THE place to head would have to be the Café des Philosophes in the Marais.


28 rue Vieille du Temple / (M) St Paul / 01 48 87 49 64

* except the OI students who already had a few oral exams last week.

UPDATE/ This year’s questions…

Sujets Philosophie Bac S 2012

1/ Avons-nous le devoir de chercher la vérité ? Is searching for the truth our responsibility?
2/ Serions-nous plus libres sans l’Etat ? Would we be freer without government?
3/ Commentary on a text by Rousseau (Emilie)

Sujets Philosophie Bac L 2012

1/ Que gagne-t-on en travaillant ? What does one earn through work?
2/ Toute croyance est-elle contraire à la raison ? Is all faith contrary to logic?
3/ Commentary on a text by Spinoza (Traité théologico-politique)

Sujets Philosophie Bac ES 2012

1/ Peut-il exister des désirs naturels ? Can natural desires exist?
2/ Travailler, est-ce seulement être utile ? To work, is it uniquely about being useful?
3/ Commentary on a text by Berkeley (Devoir et obéissance)

Not yet a room of my own…

I love writing. I get up in the morning and more than a cup of coffee, the first thing I want is to sit at my computer and hit the keyboard. As I head to my desk, I often find myself tripping over a pile of laundry that desperately needs cleaning, as I pop it in to the machine, I notice that the kitchen needs a quick sweep and as I sweep, I realize that we’re out of bananas for breakfast. Heading to the market, I grab some dry cleaning that needs to be dropped off, and before I know it I’ve spent the day doing housework. I am someone who needs to work outside the home.

In my search for a work space, I consulted an expert…a literature professor who has spent much of his life in libraries.  I listed my requirements; comfortable, airy place with plenty of natural light, an electrical outlet and wifi.  Like a true friend, Karl put me in my place informing me that natural light destroys books. Expectations adjusted, we headed out. First, he brought me to Mitterand’s Bibliothèque Nationale… too big, then to the Bibliothèque de Paris André Malraux… too small and finally to his persona favorite, the Bibliothèque Mazarine… just right.

It was love at first sight. We walked up a handful of steps into an oval light well, sun dappling the black and white checked floor. The sedate spiral staircase that leads up is lined with busts of famous, blank faced luminaries. Entering the reading room, the ancient parquet floor creaked under our feet. We stopped to open a drawer from the old card catalogue cabinets and inspected one of the thousands of cards bearing intricate script that had flowed from feather pens in the 1800‘s on to now yellowing stock. They are obsolete, the system has been digitized, but the cards remain.

The Bibliothèque Mazarine was opened to the public in 1643 by Louis XIV’s advisor, Cardinal Mazarin, and it is the oldest public library in France.  The library itself is relatively small with only four large tables running across the façade of the building and ten tables continuing down the eastern wing.  Each table is equipped with two large reading lamps and ten embedded brown leather blotters bearing gold embossed numbers that direct readers to their assigned seats.  The twenty-four foot high walls are lined with bookcases, each filled with ancient tomes from the 16th to 19th centuries. The works are arranged according to height, with the tallest books on the bottom shelves and the smallest books up in the rafters. Each row is carefully protected by hanging green baize dust covers, creating a restful symmetry that would make Martha Stewart swoon.

Between the bookcases stand ionic columns, each providing a stately backdrop to the bust of historical figures such as Cicero, Benjamin Franklin, and Molière.  The entire room is topped like an inverted wedding cake by a mezzanine rimmed with iron work balustrades that visually support an additional ten vertical feet of book shelves, this time filled with collections of all the same size, looking a bit forgotten and rather forlorn up there, removed from their only source of life, the readers.

And there are windows, UV’s be damned!  18 glorious french-paned windows perhaps four feet wide and eighteen feet high stand among the columns of the bookcases.  My favorite windows are along the façade and look out on to the Pont des Arts as it stretches from the left bank to the Louvre, providing passage across today’s roiling brown waters of the Seine.  As I take a brief break I can watch lovers sharing an umbrella as they stroll along the quai and bemused tourists gazing skywards while crossing the historic span.

I share my new work space with men and women both young and old.  Some, like myself, merely come here because it is a pleasant place to study, read, or write.  Others are here for research from the more that half a million tomes that dominate this space.  Many of the books here are so precious that they must be perused under the supervision of library staff.  Others are furnished with two triangular pillows that serve to cradle the book and protect its spine.  Strolling among the readers, one can see pages that have turned ivory with the passage of time, their brittle leaves supporting frayed and uneven edges, telling tales perhaps as rich as the printed work on the pages.
THE LIBRARY/ Bibliothèque Mazarine

A Royal Opera

Opera by (electric) candlelight

I’m a writer. I love a good story. The stories in operas are not good; Mimi wasting away of consumption in a Paris garret, Norma climbing the funeral pyre, Carmen’s ranting ex… the ending is always the same. She dies tragically.

Violetta dies tragically (photo courtesy of the Opéra de Versailles)

And to my ears, these gloomy tales us are told by hysterical screechers, their voices grating on my nerves like dry erase on a white board. I spend most of the show wishing they’d stop singing so I could hear the music! There have been some performances I have truly enjoyed, but more for the moment; seeing an outdoor performance of The Magic Flute with the Château de Sceaux as a backdrop (at last, a happy ending… although that high F6 drove me mad for days), or watching Carmen at Christmas, cuddled-up with Mr French over a steaming mug of hot chocolate (spoiler alert; she dies tragically). Someone once told me that it was a question of maturity and that I’d learn to love it when I was older which has only left me dreading the fit of depression I’ll fall into if I ever do start liking opera…

The King's Loge

So it was an incredible act of selflessness when I chose to give Mr French tickets to see La Traviata (you know the ending) at the Royal Opera House of Versailles for Christmas. The Royal Opera House was inaugurated in 1770 as part of the wedding celebrations for Louis XIV and his charming little Austrian, Marie-Antoinette. The Opera house was closed for restoration in 2007 and Mr French has had a hard time getting tickets since its re-opening in 2009. In walks moi. I was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice and attend an opera, even if it meant taking the risk of actually liking it and spiraling into a fit of depression as I ponder my mortality.

Only a few souls were left haunting the château

The sacrifice was large when you consider the sumptuous beauty of the setting; royal seats designed for a king, exquisite chandeliers and ornately painted wood. And we had the entire palace to ourselves, with just 1000 other, well-dressed guests. Versailles at its best. I can’t say that I was suffering.

The show was spectacular, and even if I don’t yet love opera, I do love the music and I could appreciate that the soprano, Nathalie Manfrino, was truly fantastic. The purity of her voice moved even me during her final aria. But I’ll be honest; the best part was spending the two intermissions haunting the wings, watching the sunset over the deserted gardens, and entering the King’s loge, feeling like a princesse as I sat in the royal seats.

MORE INFO/ Opéra Royal de Versailles

Working girls…

 Lunch is laid out to whet our appetites before entering the cantine.

A stylish cantine for a stylish crowd

This week I am working freelance from one of the large international advertising agencies that hire me to write their campaigns. This does not happen very often. At least, not the working in-house part. Most weeks I get a call, often from somebody I have never met, working from an agency I have never visited, asking me to write text for an ad campaign I will never see as it runs in countries I have never visited. Like Azerbaijan, or Croatia.

I used to have an issue with this. Should I really be working to convince poor, underprivileged farmers in Azerbaijan that they can not live without some “powder or paste or wax or bleach, To help with the housework”?  Do farmers in Azerbaijan really needed to be wearing whites that are whiter than white? Of course not. And I have to believe that they’re smart enough to know it, so I got over myself and got to work.

The company café

I love what I do and I managing my own schedule gives me time for odd projects, like ironing my underwear and Friday@Flore. But I’m usually alone, working in an empty void. Without feedback or input from others, I miss playing campaign badminton with a creative team; batting around words and concepts, our conceptual rackets swatting ideas as we come up with the winning play. And frankly, the chat around the water cooler; its astounding how boring I can be, don’t get me started on my conversations at lunch…

Well fed & ready to work

Which is why I was thrilled to be in-house this week and even more thrilled to discover the company cafeteria. Bright, light and colorful, with some serious design, the cafeteria offers employees a chance to chat and get to know each other, as well as choice of several main dishes that range from über-healthy grilled fish with steamed cabbage, to filling, carbo-loaded meals like gnocci and plenty of steak for the boys. A brief FYI; the totally cute, ultra skinny Parisiennes chose the gnocci, while I sat down with the “I don’t want to be the fat girl” fish option on my tray. There is a choice of 4 starters with dishes like salad of sliced duck breast or foie gras with gingerbread followed by a rather standard choice of desserts; chocolate mousse, blueberry clafoutis or jelled fruit in a verrine (we call it jello where I come from, although this one is made with real fruit, not a lot of sugar and is served with crème fraîche). Oh, and there is wine. Sold by the half bottle. Which sounds decadent, but is actually quite tame by industry standards. Think MadMen!
* from the musical Free To Be You and Me, I memorized this monologue when I was about 15. I still chant the line as I do my chores, “Housework is just no fun.”

Dating Mr French

There is a scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta is in the car with Samuel Lee Jackson and he is discussing his recent stay in Amsterdam:
Vincent Vega: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules Winnfield: What?
Vincent Vega: It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same sh** over there that they got here, but it’s just, just there it’s a little different.

Vincent then goes on to explain how the cheeseburger exists in the French McDonald’s, but it is called Le Royale. That is what made the movie great. Odd from the perspective of an incompetent gangster, but so true. Everything here is the same. We all eat, drink and sleep the same, but the French just do it with a certain je ne sais quoi.

I didn’t date very many Frenchmen before Mr French had earned my complete and undivided attention. There were more dinners and eventually, I let him pick me up at my front door.

This meant we arrived at the restaurant together, signaling my greatest “Le Royale” moment. Considering that the seven year old kid upstairs already insists on opening doors for me, and that my daughters’ boy friends make it a point of honor to be the last one through the door, its a safe bet that any Frenchman an adult woman would date expects to be the one opening the doors. This does not necessarily come as a reflex for independent girl from San Francisco, where men tended to be too busy flirting with her husband to even notice she was coming through the door. SLAM!

There is an entire choreography to entering a restaurant with a French man in Paris. You arrive together, then mademoiselle takes a half-step back as he opens the door, inviting you to enter. She steps in, the number of steps necessary to let him in the door, but then she must immediately step back to let him pass and be the first one to greet the maitre d’. Kind of like a back step, forward, forward, back, cha cha cha. It has taken me years to get the choreography down.

Once you’re in the door, you’re on your own, ladies. I’ve heard that French men say “je t’aime” immediately and then continue to shower you with the phrase, Mr French prefers to shower me with flowers. I’ve heard reports of men who grab you by the wrist and rush you home to meet Maman, while other men wait until after you’ve said yes to his proposal. I can’t generalize. I only know my own happily ever after, and I hope you find yours…

A First Date

Meetic Sign















I was in something in a tizzy over my first, going beyond the café, date. This wasn’t my first date with a Frenchman, in fact I’ve still never dated an American. But, this was my first date in 20 years!!! Was it really like riding a bicycle? Would I fall off? I had no idea, but I felt ready to find out.

Before heading out, I turned to My Parisiennes for advice. I was a bit wary of les filles around this time, because they had set me up on coffee dates with some of the wildest guys, occasionally knowing that the men were married! “Well, its not like he is in love with his wife, besides you never said you wouldn’t date a married man.” I learned to be very clear with my friends about what I was looking for AND what I was avoiding like a case of rickettsia (been there, done that… Africa 1993).

But these women were my friends and they provided some really fantastic advice about what to wear. Hands down, the best suggestion was to wear my favorite, most comfortable clothing that made me feel the most self-assured and at ease, ensuring I’d feel the most like myself. I chose a pair jeans with a low cut brown wool Burberry blazer that I’d had in my closet for ages.They reminded me that shoes are crucial in France. Even busy CEOs take a moment to bend down and shine their shoes before heading out the door each morning, while placement firms have been known to take potential candidates on shopping excursions for new shoes before an interview. It would have to be heels. Sexy ones that had been shined recently.

Love, by YSL

Then for that extra bit of confidence, they told me, go out and buy yourself some really, hot, sexy lingerie that you love. It will give you a secret that adds some mystery to the evening. If you’d like a second date, keep those panties to yourself and wait for another night before unveiling your new look. Of course, if one date is enough, remember to play safe.

Since I was dating men I had met online, they were not coming to pick me up at my front door. I was in no hurry to give out my home address. I headed out the door alone. Nervous, but confident with my new best friend, Chantal Thomass at my side.

Chantal Thomass

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