Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


The famous Temple Bar area in Dublin


AJ and RM at Jameson Distillery


An information board about part of the glorious Book of Kells

We’ve traveled to many countries over the years, but never to Ireland, except in transit through a couple of airports there. So, we were very happy this summer to finally visit, partly for a conference and partly for vacation.

We had our young adult grandson with us for the first part of the trip in Dublin, which was fun and helped us see this vibrant city through young eyes, especially in the famous Temple Bar area, which is alive with people, music, and pubs. Dublin has become a big tourist destination and is a ‘happening place’ for young people, but is also popular with older tour groups. Because of this, it can be very crowded, especially in summer, and it’s best to pre-book the main sights (which we did for the wonderful illustrated Book of Kells at Trinity College, and for Jameson Distillery). The Book of Kells is a gorgeous example of how the Christian Irish monks tended the flame of literacy during the Dark Ages in Europe and then reintroduced it.


One courtyard at Trinity College, Dublin


AJ and I outside the actual Temple Bar int he Temple Bar area


Newgrange is an easy day trip north of Dublin

We found Dublin to be an international city now, with lots of immigrant workers, for example, people at our hotel, wait staff at restaurants and pubs. I guess this is mostly because Ireland is part of the EU and allows workers from EU countries in.

We did a day bus trip out of Dublin to Newgrange, a 5000-year-old stone passage tomb, which is well worth a visit if you want to learn about Ireland’s ancient history. We discovered that the country has a high concentration of ancient stone tombs, stone circles, beehive huts, dolmens and menhirs and were able to visit a few when we left Dublin. For example, the Kenmare stone circle in Kenmare, Drombeg stone circle, and many on the Dingle Peninsula, all in the southwest.


Drombeg stone circle


Killarney hosts its own July 4th festivities 


kill4thsignI will write about sights and places in Ireland in more detail, but for now, because this was our first trip, I’ll try to sum up our main first impressions. The short summary is: we loved it and would love to get back. It seems these feelings are shared by many Americans, as we met up with people from USA (or heard them talking) in various places, especially in the southwest part of the country, and especially in Killarney. Killarney even has a Fourth of July parade, fireworks etc! This must be partly because so many Americans had Irish ancestors and they love to come tracing their ancestry.




Barak Obama Plaza between Tipperary and Dublin

It’s said that about 50 million people claim Irish descent in the USA alone. A famous American family with Irish ancestors is, of course, the Kennedys. But there are many others. We discovered that 22 American Presidents had Irish ancestry, including Barack Obama, and in fact we found a whole Service Plaza on a motorway named after him. The plaza also has a special exhibition area upstairs, which focuses on Obama but also showcases other famous people with Irish ancestors. A lot of fun.

First of all, a draw to this country is the Irish people. We found them to be incredibly friendly, warm, welcoming, kind, and hospitable, so it was always great to interact with them. They rely on tourists, including Irish tourists, as a large part of their economy, but the friendliness seems to be inherently in their nature. We really enjoyed having long chats with bus drivers, servers in different restaurants, pubs, and at our hotels.

Next, one has to talk about the countryside.


Ireland is often known as the misty Emerald Isle and after driving around a bit we could see why: the countryside really is very green, much of it a bright emerald-like green. However, this summer it wasn’t misty at all, as Ireland was also having a heat wave, like much of Europe, and some parts of the country were so dry they were considering water rationing—apparently that’s not happened since 1975.

The country is surprisingly agrarian and intensely cultivated, as agriculture is still a large part of their economy. There are many trees, big rolling hills, round bales of hay and green barley fields (lots of barley ready for the whiskey production!). The fields and pastures seem mostly to be very organized, laid out and divided with hedges, tree rows, or stone walls, often making a patchwork pattern, even up quite steep hillsides.



It’s good cattle country as it’s not so hilly and rugged. Where it is more mountainous and barren, sheep do well. Most of the cattle are Friesland, as there is a big dairy industry and Irish butter is wonderful. Unfortunately the EU has surplus butter right now so Ireland probably has trouble exporting all their butter. In contrast to green fields are the scenic, often dramatic coastal cliffs that ring this small island.





One car had to pull over to allow passing

Roads tend to be very narrow and winding, especially on the peninsulas, and many have very high hedges so driving is slow. Plus, they are frequently crowded with too many cars/tourists for their size. There are many country towns, with the main road running through them, so it can be slow driving and often there’ll be a traffic build-up, especially if it’s a market day. We ran into this, for example, at Adare (on the A21 near Limerick), which has a Friday market.


But the highways are very good, with good Services stops.

The towns and villages are generally very pretty. First, you’ll notice multiple, beautiful flower baskets and pots—on shops, on pubs, on lamp posts, on bridge railings. Then, many of the buildings are brightly painted—as part of the Irish government’s “beautify” the country program. It’s in stark contrast to some of the drab row buildings that do still exist.



Flowers are everywhere

musicMusic, beer and whiskey are an integral fact of Irish life. Wherever you go you’ll find many bars, pubs and lounges (many with typical names like Matt McCoy, Murphy’s, O’Grady’s) as going out to these places is part of the way of life. Individuals, groups, families will sit and chat for hours, watching TV, listening to live traditional music. It seemed to us that it was like an extension of the living room or meeting hall.



musicsign2Ireland is also a land famous for writers, such as W.B.Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, and still today most Irish people can become quite poetic and philosophical.

One of the only downsides to our trip: We found Ireland quite expensive, probably more than Scotland or France.

But, another trip is definitely on the cards for us one day!



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Note the commemorative wall behind the statue


View from the Spirit


Part of the Thomas wall

Chicago has a fantastic collection of public art, of all shapes, sizes and themes. Over the years we’ve tried to track down as many as we can, and I’ve written about many of them already. We spent last weekend in the city and had the chance to wander around Grant Park more than we have before, thus discovering more public art.

This lovely sculpture, the Spirit of Music, in Chicago’s Grant Park is also known as the Theodore Thomas Memorial.





Note the face on the lyre

Theodore Thomas(1835-1905) was the founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891 and The Spirit of Music is a tribute to him. Under his directorship, Chicago gained a reputation for musical excellence, which continues today. The figure, and the monument behind it, were sculpted in 1923 by Czech-American artist and sculptor Albin Polasek(1879-1965). Polasek came to Chicago to head the sculpture department at the Art Institute School. Instead of creating a sculpture of Thomas, Polasek decided on a tall bronze muse holding a lyre. The artist said that the face on the lyre was modeled on his own face.




mooseThe half-ball base on which the muse stands is decorated with different animals, such as a moose, a bison, and a bear—also quite striking.

The monument is in the strip of park along Michigan Avenue, almost opposite the Blackstone.

There is a museum to Albin Polasek in Winter Park, Florida. I wrote about it here https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/albin-polasek/and here https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/masterpiece-of-the-week/april/



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We saw many pelicans


Merida has many interesting street signs


If you don’t fancy the crowds along the Maya Riviera, on the Caribbean coast south of Cancun, Mexico, a great alternative is to use Merida as a base. This pretty Colonial city on the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula is within easy distance of many famous Mayan sites (Chichen Itza and the Puuc Route, with Uxmal), the northern biosphere, and good sand beaches.

On this daytrip, we went to Progresso for the beach, the sea, and the sun; to Uaymintun


Progresso beach

for the lagoon and flamingo viewing; to Xtambo for a Mayan ruin and more flamingoes. We returned to Merida on side roads, passing through typical small Yucatecan villages.

We decided on this as an alternative to flamingo viewing at the Celestun Park to the west. On a previous visit to Celestun we felt concerned at how the tourist boats on the estuary are disturbing the birds, especially the flamingoes. Another plus—this way is free.

We drove north out of Merida on Paseo Montejo, noting the richer colonial side of the city, with wide streets, mansions and shopping complexes, and even a Sams Club!


Part of the lagoon—if you look closely there are a few flamingoes there

Progresso, Merida’s port, is about a 30-minute drive, past a huge abandonned henequin factory (which produced ropes, mats etc), evidence of the previous wealth from this crop; and Dzibilchaltun, another ruined Mayan city with an excellent museum of Mayan history. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in the Maya. The site also has the famous House of the Seven Dolls, and an interesting cenote (steep-sided natural well.)

Progresso has progressed, compared to our visit four years before. Parking is plentiful along the esplanade, rebuilt after the hurricane a few years ago. All the usual tourist facilities line the esplanade, in a scaled-down version compared to the Caribbean coast, and we found it much more pleasant. A wide sand beach, with beach chairs, palapa huts, and beach restaurants, looks out over the calm blue water, tiny waves lapping.

After a swim, and lunch at one of the beach restaurants, we headed out east along the


Beautiful birds

coastal road, palm trees on one side, stubby salt-flats bush on the other. There’s a string of development in the narrow strip between the sea and the biosphere, mostly brightly-painted houses, some holiday flats and hotels.

We followed the coastal road to Uaymintun, a small village with a tall wooden lookout tower over the lagoon; a great way to see part of the lagoon and biosphere preserve and do bird-watching, especially with binoculars. (The lookout tower is free, but you can rent binoculars there). The biosphere extends for hundreds of kilometers: lagoons, shallow lakes and waterways with small islands and mud flats. Scores of flamingoes were walking in the shallow water, many still bright pink even though this wasn’t nesting season. We saw many other birds too, including pelicans.

A few miles further on, the sign for Xtambo ruins is on the right. The drive is along a miles-long causeway over the lagoon with views of an amazing number of birds, especially flamingoes. The road is not busy, so stopping is easy. What a marvelous place for viewing and photographing birds in their natural environment: pelicans, oyster catchers, sandpipers, cormorants, white herons, blue herons, turkey buzzards.



Xtambo ruins are just off to the right after the lagoon, along a narrow dirt road between tall grasses and stubby trees, swampy areas just to the side. The name means “place of the crocodile”, and we could easily imagine there might be a crocodile in there somewhere!

These Maya ruins are bigger than we expected, and much still remains to be excavated. It was a salt distribution center, reaching its peak around 600AD. The bases of two large structures are in a clearing before the main ruins: the low Pyramid of the Cross, and other buildings around a courtyard. All are grey stone, with little visible ornamentation now other than some stone masks. Xtambo was important as the port for Izamal, a bigger town inland, which was far away for people in those days. We’d known that the Maya traded, but did they travel by sea?

There were no other visitors, so we rambled happily around at will. The structures are not


A mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs

remarkable, compared to Chichen Itza, for example, but it’s an interesting little site. Of note is the small Catholic Chapel of the Virgin at the base of the temple, built 50-plus years ago after the Virgin of X’Cambo appeared here, showing us that old and new beliefs can co-exist. The view out is to scrubby palm trees and swamp, rather than jungle, but it’s completely isolated, giving us a real feel for what it must have been like thirteen centuries ago.

On smaller roads south back to Merida, prolific vines are creeping over almost everything, and the jungle encroaches on both sides of the road. It’s not hard to see how they could ‘eat up’ the area again. We passed through a number of villages, all arranged around a central square. This can be hazardous driving. Topes (speed bumps) slowed us down, but people walk along the road, or ride bikes, or pull carts loaded with firewood. Children play in the unpaved streets lined with banana trees, and animals wander at will. Huts with thatched roofs, or low houses with tin roofs and faded, chipped paint, are in dusty yards, with washing draped on fences, pigs tethered to small papaya trees, mangy dogs prowling under acacia trees, and a group of kids playing in the dirt, their noses running.


Scrubby jungle around Xtambo

This is local life, as it really is, not a sanitized version for tourist viewing. We felt privileged to see this natural version of life in rural Yucatan.


Merida’s cathedral—one of the oldest in the Americas


Given the sometimes-poor state of the roads, this is more than enough in one day. Start early, especially if you want lots of swimming time. There are gas stations in Progresso, but not on the smaller roads.

Picking up a rental car at Merida airport is very easy. The airport has a Tourist Information desk and an ATM for cash. The best Tourist Information Office is on Calle 60 in town, on the edge of Parque de la Maternidad, two blocks north of the main square (see below). General information at www.travelyucatan.com/merida_mexico.php


Balloon sellers are popular on the main square


Traditional Yucatecan dancing

DSCF0045.JPGPlaza de la Independencia, the center of downtown Merida, is a green oasis. On Sundays, the streets around it are closed, so everyone can enjoy the bustling Sunday market, and free music concerts and traditional Yucatecan dancing. Don’t miss the huge cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace, with a series of enormous, strikingly colorful, abstract murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco of Merida, depicting the history of the Yucatan.



Part of the colorful Merida market


Many tasty tropical fruits

The Anthropological and Historical Museum on Paseo Montejo has an excellent, although small, collection of ancient Mayan artifacts.

Around the main plaza, and Park Hidalgo—another square one block north—are many restaurants, food stalls, bars, and coffee shops (most with internet connections).

Merida has many hotels in all price ranges. Two of our favorites (with swimming pools, and parking facilities offered) are Hotel Dolores Alba, with rooms arranged around the courtyard of a restored colonial house


Imagine a hotel in a lovely old Colonial building

(www.doloresalba.com); and Gran Hotel, a grand 100-year-old Italianate building on Park Hidalgo. Tel: +52 999-924-7730, fax +52 999-924-7622, www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx

Friends stayed at Hotel Colonial and were very satisfied, www.hotelcolonial.com.mx (in Spanish)


Variety of chile peppers


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The reception area after the tour groups leave

The reception area after the tour groups leave

Sun Studios: The Birthplace of Rock ‘N Roll

No visit to Memphis, TN, is complete without a visit to the legendary Sun Studio. It was here that Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right Mamma” in July 1954, opening up a new genre of music called Rock ‘n Roll. It was an instant hit and Sun Studio became one of the most famous recording studios in the world. This year (2014) is the 60th anniversary of that momentous recording, and the city of Memphis is celebrating.

Elvis developed an innovative and different sound, combining Blues, Gospel and Country music. That quality made him a worldwide celebrity within two years and he went on to become one of the most famous and beloved entertainers in history. This studio didn’t only launch the career of Elvis, but also of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and many others. Generations of musicians have been affected by all those who recorded here and, in fact, musicians still continue to record here at night.

Some of the vinyl records and old record covers on display

Some of the vinyl records and old record covers on display

Upstairs, our guide explains something about the story of Sam Phillips

Upstairs, our guide explains something about the story of Sam Phillips

The studio building is not large, which makes its impact on the music world even more significant. We entered the studio building into a small café/bar/shop, with a great selection of music CDs and various shirts and T-shirts. It’s a small space and can get very crowded, especially if there are large tour groups waiting for the next tour. Buy a ticket here for the guided tour, which lasts about half an hour.

Taking the guided tour is fun, but tends to be rather crowded, especially on the top floor, where the large tour group blocks out seeing much of anything in the glass cases lining the walls. That’s a shame, as the information that our guide tells us is fascinating. She tells about early Blues musicians, and how Sam Phillips got into the recording business, and something about early radio DJs and how they picked up on this new music. We also learned about the studio secretary, Marion Keisker, who really believed in young Elvis Presley even when Sam Phillips at first thought he wasn’t that great. We wished that the tour group size could be a lot smaller.

The group then goes downstairs to the recording studio, where you can hold the actual microphone used by Elvis and many of

Vera G tests out the mic used by Elvis and those other famous musicians

Vera G tests out the mic used by Elvis and those other famous musicians

the other great musicians, and where you can imagine those famous singers and players jamming and making music history.

A fun, but crowded tour. Our thanks to our guide that day, Nina, who did a lovely job and who is very enthusiastic about her subject.

It’s easy to get to Sun Studio: catch the free shuttle bus that runs between the Rock ‘n Soul Museum on 3rd Street (next to the Fedex Forum arena), Sun Studio and Heartbreak Hotel. The shuttle runs every hour from 10:30am.

This famous photo of The Million Dollar Quartet is displayed in Many places (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis)

This famous photo of The Million Dollar Quartet is displayed in many places (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis)



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STL250: Cakeway to the West

What a clever name for this celebration—a play on Gateway to the West, the nickname for St Louis, as it was the gateway city to the westward expansion of the USA.

This year, 2014, St Louis is 250 years old and the city and surrounds are commemorating this in many ways. STL250 is a city group that’s celebrating the founding of the city—officially on February 14, 1784—and the events, people, places, and cultures that have shaped the city.

Chuck Berry---one of the movers and shakers of St Louis history

Chuck Berry—one of the movers and shakers of St Louis history

(See a good historical summary of the city here

https://stlouis-mo.gov/visit-play/stlouis-history.cfm )

One of the year-long activities is the Cakeway to the West. 250 cakes are dotted around the city—cakes to mark a birthday and 250 for the number of years.

These 250 cakes are part public art exhibit, part scavenger hunt, and part history lesson. The STL250 committee chose 200 of the locations and the other 50 were chosen by public vote.

Each two-tier ornamental birthday cake stands 4-feet tall, and is decorated by local artists, reflecting the notable location. Each is unique.

I’m sure that we will not have the opportunity to find all 250 cakes, as we only visit St Louis about 6 times a year, but we will do our best!!

Here are the first two cakes:

Blueberry Hill cake

Blueberry Hill cake

Blueberry Hill, a famous restaurant on Delmar

Blueberry Hill, a famous restaurant on Delmar

1) at Blueberry Hill, 6505 Delmar, University City. Blueberry Hill is a landmark restaurant and music club that started the revitalization of The Loop area in University City. The artist is Indy Bowers.

Most people probably know the famous song called Blueberry Hill, first written in 1940 but made famous by the 1950s rock n’ roll version by Fats Domino.

Listen to a YouTube audio file here:




Cake to celebrate the St Louis Walk of Fame

Cake to celebrate the St Louis Walk of Fame

Chuck Berry statue

Chuck Berry statue

2) one outside by the Chuck Berry statue at 6605 Delmar to celebrate the St Louis Walk of Fame (with sidewalk stars). This is also the 25th anniversary of the Walk of Fame—one of the first inductees was Chuck Berry, a pioneer of rock ‘n roll music. He performed his 205th show at Blueberry Hill on June 18th, 2014, at age 88 (born in St Louis October 18, 1926). Wish we had been there!

The artist is Gina Harmon. Many names are inscribed on this cake—note especially Maya Angelou, who died recently, a world-famous author, poet, singer and civil-rights activist who was born in St  Louis in 1928.

Maya Angelou star: each star also has a plaque for a brief summary of the person

Maya Angelou star: each star also has a plaque for a brief summary of the person





Hopefully I’ll have more cakes to share in the coming months.




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Urbana-Champaign, Illinois: Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival



redbbqIt’s summer in the northern hemisphere, so it’s festival time. Festivals pop up in cities and small towns all over celebrating the season, but especially celebrating music and food.

Our university town in central Illinois has joined in the fun and last weekend (June 27-28, 2014) we had the 3rd annual Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival, with a cute alligator as the logo and mascot. Blues is a very popular genre of American music, and almost everyone enjoys beer and BBQ (at least in the summer).

The festival’s catchy name reflects the great atmosphere, with a laid-back but lively buzz, at the

One of the Vendor Alleys

One of the Vendor Alleys

venue—a large parking lot in downtown Champaign, closed off and decked out. People wander at will, in groups or alone, with kids in tow or in strollers, and many folks bring their own portable garden chairs so they can sit and eat /drink while listening to the music.

Along two sides are the Vendors Alleys, where you can choose any kind of BBG your heart may desire, plus Greek or Mexican food, and things like corn dogs, funnel cakes, and curly fries. My husband couldn’t resist trying something called a bacon-wrapped pig wing! (a small pig shank wrapped in bacon and doused with a BBQ sauce).


Hmmm…what can that be?

Hmmm…what can that be?

I'm in front of the Main Stage, holding a pig wing!

I’m in front of the Main Stage, holding a pig wing!

A Vendor Alley offers all kinds of BBQ delicacies

A Vendor Alley offers all kinds of BBQ delicacies

An enormous inflatable icecream cone-stand offers cool icecream in the hot weather, and a stand shaped like a huge yellow lemon entices with cold lemonade. Choose from a variety of beers from beer tents dotted around, if you are so inclined, or even local wines. Many people bought a large luminous green beer mug, which they could then refill.

At the Merchants tent you can buy festival T-shirts, mugs, and CDs of the various performers. I was lucky enough to be there when Eddie Shaw (Blues performer) was selling and signing his CD, so I got an autographed copy.

Two stages dominated the venue and various artists

An upcoming star---Kenna Mae  Reiss

An upcoming star—Kenna Mae Reiss

performed on these. But not at the same time—each stage took the stage for an hour or two, then it switched to the other one. At the end of the venue was a smaller stage, especially for upcoming new artists. It was next to Louie’s Playland, a special section for kids’ activities, with a jumpy castle, face painting etc.

bikesIn another corner was the Dinosores Motorcycle Show, which seemed very popular. I don’t know much about motorcycles, but even I could tell that these were special machines, much loved by their owners.


Eddie Shaw & The Wolf Gang

Eddie Shaw & The Wolf Gang

Eddie Shaw plays and sings---very talented

Eddie Shaw plays and sings—very talented

Maurice John Vaughn and his group

Maurice John Vaughn and his group

The musical line-up was impressive, but unfortunately we were only there for part of one afternoon and couldn’t take in the billed main acts: Buckwheat Zydeco, and Nikki Hill. But, no matter as they were all great and we really enjoyed the two we could listen to: Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang (fantastic Chicago Blues), and Maurice John Vaughn (also out of Chicago).

Maurice John Vaughn and his group

Maurice John Vaughn and his group





Next year, if you are in Illinois (or even somewhere in the US Midwest) in June 2015, it’s well worth making a detour to visit Champaign-Urbana and enjoy this lovely event. The festival is free (you pay for food and drinks obviously), but a donation would be welcome.


If this food truck is to be believed, you’ll be treated like royalty!


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One of Amsterdam's many canals and bridges

One of Amsterdam’s many canals and bridges

Rijks Museum from end of Museumplein. Note signs about Concertgebouw's 125 years

Rijks Museum from end of Museumplein. Note signs about Concertgebouw’s 125 years

A typical canal scene with gabled buildings and houseboats

A typical canal scene with gabled buildings and houseboats

Amsterdam’s Canals Turn 400!

Amsterdam is a great city to visit any time, but this year, 2013, brings greater inducements to put the city on your itinerary.

*2013 is the four-hundredth anniversary of the famous Amsterdam canals—in 1613, three main parallel canals were constructed outside the walls of the inner medieval city. Powerful and wealthy merchants built their beautiful homes along these canals, and we can still admire those buildings today as we glide along the water in a canal boat or as we stroll the narrow canal-side streets.

*The world-famous Concertgebouw Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 125th anniversary with many special performances.

*The Rijksmuseum re-opened in mid-April after an almost decade-long renovation. It’s the country’s biggest museum and houses masterpieces by Dutch artists Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, such as “The Night Watch” and “The Kitchen Maid”. *The Van Gogh Museum re-opened in May. In fact, this year is the first time in many years that all the museums on Museumplein (Museum Square) are open at the same time.

* The Amsterdam Zoo turns 175.

The lovely Concertgebouw at one end of Museumplein

The lovely Concertgebouw at one end of Museumplein

We were lucky enough to be there in June and I’ll cover some of the city’s attractions in the next few weeks.

175 years at the zoo

175 years at the zoo

If you love flowers, visit the Zoo

If you love flowers, visit the Zoo

The newly-reopened Rijks Museum

The newly-reopened Rijks Museum

Come and celebrate 125 years of great music

Come and celebrate 125 years of great music

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