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Archive for November, 2012

I started writing again today. Proper writing – working on the short story I’d been writing back in February, before my extra-Korean adventures started. I only got a bit less than 400 words down, but it’s better than nothing, but my log shows that no one day’s worth of work made it into four figures, and in twelve sessions the word count is up to 8,000. I also read the story. As a first draft, it’s not that bad, but there are plenty of places where it can be improved.

I just need to ensure that I get into a good writing routine.

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On Thursday I went for a walk up to Cheonan Station and found a foreign foods shop that I’d read about on the internet. Not as big as the ones in Itaewon, but it had various Thai sauces, Indian curry powders and Western deodorants that I might take advantage of in the future. With not much money in my wallet, I didn’t buy anything. I headed over to the railway station and got a couple of maps from the little tourist information office. Then I walked towards home, found a Daiso shop and got myself a cheap set of kitchen knives.

A little later, I was picked up from my flat by one of the hagwon’s older students – a favourite of the director. He took me to a pretty big hospital, Cheonan Chungmu Hospital (in front of which stands a statue of Yu Gwan-sun, a protester against Japanese occupation in the early twentieth century), where I had my medical test. He took me around to the various departments and translated for me. I had a pretty bad headache, having gone to bed straight after work without drinking anything; I didn’t want to take any pills just in case it compromised my drugs test (despite the fact that my doctor had said it was impossible). I discovered that I had a couple of small cavities and that my vision was now 15/15. Presumably, these defects, in addition to my colour-blindness, won’t prevent me staying in my job.

The student paid for the test with the director’s credit card. It was ₩104,000, which is about ₩20,000 more expensive than the price for one of the previous tests I had. The director is going to deduct this from my pay, which I’m a bit disappointed about, but it’s not such a big deal that I’m going to be bothered about it. She said (I think – she put in a bit of strange way) that should would give me the money if I signed a second contract – although that’s a pretty long way down the line.

The result comes back next Thursday. The day after, we’ll go to Immigration to get me my Alien Registration Card.

I thought I might go to a café on Friday morning and do some writing, but I discovered I’d left my backpack at work overnight. With nothing practical to carry my computer in, I decided to go for a walk. I headed in the opposite direction from the city centre towards the nearby smaller city of Asan.

I passed over a distinctive circular bridge – there’s a ring-shaped walkway suspended over a big junction with ramps and lifts on each corner. I’ve seen similar footbridge in Japan, but never in Korea before. I had brought my camera with me this time, so I took a few photos.

A bit further on, I found a new department store, the Galleria – where the mother of the boy who took me to the hospital works; as he has no more school work to do, he helps her there. It was 9 – 9:30, so too early for the shops inside to be open – so I didn’t go in. Instead, I carried on a bit further and had a look inside the KTX (bullet train) station, Cheonan-Asan. The track is elevated for quite a long stretch, built on top of some monumental, multi-level arches. Inside, it’s full of huge, tubular metal supports. Impressive, if you like that kind of thing – and I rather do.

The area around the station and the Galleria is pretty dead. There’s a Lotte Mart nearby, with associated shops, something called E-Mart Traders, some big apartment buildings and an area of new, small buildings that’s very reminiscent of the ghost town-like new development close to where I worked in Bundang. The area seems very symptomatic of the Korean enthusiasm for development. They seem to believe strongly in the idea that, if you build it, they will come.

I had some kimbap at the station and headed back home. Then headed out again immediately for another walk – in the other direction, this time. My aim was to scout out more ways of walking into the centre and to locate the Korea Exchange Bank, at which I will open an account once I’m able (KEB apparently has good a good set-up for transfering money to foreign accounts). I found, along with a big market along a street characteristically covered with a big, arched roof. I kept walking, passed an Indian restaurant that I’ll have to eat at some time and found myself at Cheonan Station.

I went home, got some indifferent and over-priced pizza for lunch, went to work, finished said pizza for dinner, completed work and returned home again. The weekend followed.

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I met the director again at 12 o’clock and she took me to a nearby restaurant for lunch – and when I say nearby, it was just a couple of building up the street from the hagwon. She was friends with the woman who worked there – the woman’s son being one of our star pupils, apparently. The food was decent – I went for bulgogi and mushroom stew, which actually isn’t one of my favourite; there was a good selection of side dishes on small, attractive plates.

I mentioned to Julie that I’d had to buy a load of stuff and she said she could give me some things. I also asked if I could have an advance on my salary – which isn’t going to be paid in full until I’ve actually worked a full month (being such a small school, there’s no official pay day). She said she’d think about it. Lunch turned out to be free – and not just for me.

We crossed the street back to the school and Julie opened up and talked me through the schedule, writing it all out for me. My hours are from 2 to 9:30 pm and my classes are pretty evenly split between classes of six to eight students and classes of only one student; essentially, I’ll be providing private lessons to several kids once or twice a week. I wasn’t told of any major preparations needed for classes, but a couple of my ‘privates’ don’t have books, so I’ll have to think of some way of passing an hour with them. The schedule includes an hour or an hour and half of preparation time at the start of each working day, however. I have a break of half an hour at around eight o’clock.

When I needed to use the bathroom, she recommended that I go back to my place as there is only one bathroom, which is shared by students and staff. The hagwon occupies the ground floor of the building and consists of five rooms and a single, L-shaped corridor. I, Julie and the part-timer, Nami each have our own class room; there’s an office and an extra room where the water cooler is. The decor isn’t great – the walls are slightly grubby white, the desks and chairs are not all the same, there’s no decoration, everything’s rather tired and lived in. It’s also pretty cold – although Julie told me I have the warmest room in winter and the coolest in summer.

Apparently, there are flats on the upper floors of the building and a number of foreign teachers live there; I didn’t see any yesterday. Julie also told me she could let me have a quarter of my pay in a fortnight. I’m probably not going to be able to eke what what money I have that long, but I suppose that’s why baby Jesus invented credit cards.

Julie had arranged for a 19-year-old boy to come and take me on a little tour of the area. She insisted he was very smart and a great talker, but he wasn’t excessively forthcoming with me. We chatted a little awkwardly as he showed me the sights – a branch of Kookmin Bank, an osteopathy hospital, a bus stop. Ooh.

I was pretty tired at this point, but I had to start earning my keep. First class was a four-year-old boy. When I heard about it, this was the class that I was most apprehensive about. However, the lad is very well behaved, and, while he can’t speak much, he understands reasonably well. I asked him simple questions like, ‘How old are you?’ (he held up four fingers), practised writing letters and worked with flash cards.

After that, the classes were a relative breeze. The children all seem friendly enough, respectful enough and willing enough to communicate. I was suffering from sleep and caffeine withdrawal and developed a bad headache throughout the afternoon – bad enough to make me feel nauseous. I explained this to my last student of the day and he suggested we play Scrabble; I didn’t object. I thrashed him 335 to 86 – which cheered me up a bit.

At one point in the afternoon, Julie introduced me to the other teacher, Nami, who’s a mere slip of a girl at 20 years old. Julie also gave me a few things for my flat – a couple of cups, bowls, forks and spoons and a saucepan – this latter being the most useful, as I can now make tea. I was due to go to a hospital today for my mandatory health check – but Julie suggested we leave it till Thursday if I wasn’t feeling well; I agreed.

I went home and collapsed into bed. I was up again in the early hours, had some cereal and chocolate digestives (I was rather surprised to see that the legendary Diget biscuits have not only changed their packaging, but grown in size), wrote my last blog post, listened to the radio. I got some more sleep around dawn (using the sleeping mask I’d kept from my flight over), but I was up again at eight, well before my alarm went off at nine.

After breakfasting and washing, I headed out and walked to the downtown area of the city – which took about an hour. I’m sitting writing this in the Starbucks I saw when I arrived. I’ve had a look around the Shinsegae department store; there are various clothes shops, of course, an E-Mart, a cinema (not one of the main chains), a Kyobo Mungo – the Koreas equivalent of Waterstones – with a small selection non-TEFL English language books. There’s a lot more to the bus station than I saw on Monday – a ticket to Seoul costs ₩5,500, give or take, depending on where exactly you get off. There are several large sculptures in front of the building, including one by Keith Haring (an exhibition of whose work I saw a couple of years ago in Seoul).

I should walk back home now – I can’t really afford to take a taxi and I’m not au fait enough with the buses to be confident using them. Thinking of kimbap for lunch.

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By the evening before I left, I’d mostly packed my bags and thought I would be under my baggage allowance of 30kg, plus 8kg carry-on. Finishing off the morning I left, it became apparent that it would not be so simple. I got my big backpack to about 16kg – consisting of clothes and toiletries – and squeezed about 15kg into my small suitcase – all the more valuable stuff: camera, speakers, Magic: The Gathering cards, shoes. I removed a few things from my suitcase, left a book or two behind, put a couple of books and my umbrella in my small backpack for carrying on etc, and got down to around 16 (big backpack) + 13 (small suitcase) + 6 (small backpack) kilogrammes.

My parents came down and, together with my sister and her kids, we drove to Manchester Airport. I was there in plenty of time – there was no wait to check in at the Turkish Airlines check-in desks in Terminal 1 and there were no problems – so we had a drink (once we found out where the cafés and shops were). My dad and sister took various photos of me posing with the kids; three-year-old Maisy pretend-fed me a series of sugar sachets. My mum and sister made lame jokes about me flying on a turkey. Afterwards, we went up to the rooftop carpark and waited in the cold for an aeroplane to take off.

I said goodbye amid lots of hugs and kisses and made my way through the security check and to the appropriate gate, arriving not long before boarding started.

The flight to Istanbul was uneventful. At Atatürk International Airport, I wandered around a bit, but elected not to bother buying anything or exchanging money and just waited at the gate, reading. The flight to Incheon was just as uneventful. The first thing the attendants handed out was a pair of slippers, then a tin containing an eye mask, disposable toothbrush and tiny tube of toothpaste and one or two other items. I used replaced my boots with the slippers, but didn’t get round to brushing my teeth. In fact, during the ten-hour flight, I didn’t leave my seat once. Having not drunk anything in Istanbul, I wasn’t excessively hydrated and didn’t really need the bathroom.

The meals were pretty good, but I noticed that you got a little teacup on each meal tray, but you weren’t served a hot drink until after the tray was taken away. I kept hold of my cup every time and, for the first two meals (including the one on the Manchester-Istanbul flight), was given coffee in it; but the last time, the stewardess gave me back a plastic beaker of coffee instead. People around me were given their tea and coffee in the same plastic glasses – pretty much rendering the teacups completely pointless.

At Incheon Airport, I finally went to the bathroom. I had to connect to the internet to find an address and phone number for my landing card, as I’d forgotten to note them earlier. A look of concern or confusion crossed the face of the Immigration officer as she examined my visa, but she let me through without question.

Once I’d got my bags and exchanged money, I was met in the arrivals hall by my ‘pick-up man’. He hurried me outside and to the bus stop for Cheonan and bought me a ticket with money I provided. He wanted me to pay him ₩30,000, to which I said, ‘No,’ with a bit of a laugh. He got on the phone and sorted it out – so I didn’t give him anything extra. The bus was due to leave in fifteen minutes and he was quite concerned that I should stay at the stop, but I headed back inside to get some water and coffee from a convenience store.

Having been told it would take two hours, the drive south to Cheonan took only one hour, forty minutes. The bus station appeared to be just a car park and thoroughfare next to the Shinsegae department stored. I waited inside, next to the Starbucks (resisting the urge to go in and get something quite easily because I wasn’t keen to lug my bags about) and about twenty minutes or so later the director turned up with her young daughter. As she got on the phone to her husband, who had the car, the five-year-old hid behind her mum and played peekaboo with me.

We walked outside and the husband picked us up on the main road and drove about ten minutes to the area where I was to live and work. The director, Julie, took me to a Paris Baguette and bought me sandwiches and milk. Then we drove past the school and stopped at the apartment, a distance of no more than fifty metres from the school.

Julie took me inside and showed me how to turn on the heating and then I was left by myself until twelve the following day. The flat is actually a little bit bigger than the photos I’d seen suggested – but not massive, of course. It was fairly clean, but there were a few small stains around, a bit of dust behind things and hairs from woman who left last week.

The really disappointing thing was that there was very little in the way of household items. There was a rice-cooker and toaster in the kitchen, along with a brand new, still-in-its-box microwave, but no kettle, no pots or pans, no plates, bowls, cups or cutlery, not so much as a sponge or scouring pad. There were no coat hangers in the wardrobe. In the bathroom, there wasn’t even a pair of rubber slippers. I could find no washing machine, either, but, after talking to a Korean friend on Facebook, who told me I would probably find one somewhere, I had a look around the building and found a communal wasshing machine in a room downstairs.

I went to a nearby Homeplus Express (Homeplus, you’ll remember, is co-owned by Tesco and Samsung) and got a box of cereal, noodles and some chopsticks and spoons. I microwaved water in the noodle container and cleaned it and re-used it in the morning for my Kellogs brown rice flakes.

I was up pretty early, and, having figured out exactly where I was on Google Maps, made my way to a large Homeplus about 25 minutes walk to the south, where I got various other essential items (including three kinds of tea). By the time I got home again, I was pretty tired and needed a nap before meeting the director for lunch.

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I now have an e-ticket for a Turkish Airlines flight to Korea via Istanbul, leaving on Sunday afternoon and arriving on Monday evening. I have no passport still – I’m hoping it’ll arrive on Saturday, but if it doesn’t, my recruiter will be able to reschedule my journey. Once at the airport, I’m to be met by a ‘pick-up man’, whose duty is to buy me a ticket for the bus (although I’ll have to pay for it) and see that I get on – and presumably let the recruiter know so that they can let the director know what time to pick me up from the bus station.

I’ve doing some partial packing to see how much stuff I can fit into my backpack and suitcase. My baggage allowance is 30kg, with 8kg carry-on. I may be making full use of this allowance – and leaving some stuff behind that I had hoped to take. When I launder my last clothes on Saturday, I’ll have a better idea.

The other day, I went to the doctor to ask about whether my medication, mesalazine, would trigger a false positive on the drugs test I’ll have to take as part of my official health exam, which will prove that I’m literally fit to teach in Korea. He said that it wouldn’t and neither would paracetamol (unless I took huge amounts of it) and similar pills; steroids and sleeping pills would – but I’m not going to be using either of those.

I also showed him a couple of photos of my back that I’d taken – at his recommendation – over the past couple of months. I have lots of moles and they’ve grown and multiplied over my life – it’s hard to say, as it’s such a slow process and, being mostly on my back, they’re hard to keep an eye on. I handed over my memory stick, on to which I’d copied the two photos. He connected it to his computer and had a look at the two pictures. The third picture turned out to be a saved soft porn picture I’d saved in a different folder – I never use the automatic slideshow option, so I wasn’t expecting that. Kind of embarrassing, but the doctor took it in his stride.

On the subject of my moles, he said he would have referred me to a specialist to check out two irregularly shaped moles espcially – if I wasn’t leaving the country. He recommended I see a skin specialist before too long.

After that, I headed off to Manchester on the train. I had been thinking about getting a couple of non-fiction books, but ended up just getting Robert Rankin’s new novel – The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds. I’m not sure whether I should make this my in-flight reading or plump for something else, as I only recently read the book’s immediate predecessor, The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age.

I also went to see Argo, which I thought was great – a tense, funny and apparently realistic depiction of the rescue of six embassy workers from revolutionary Iran. The stand-out feature of the film, though, was the period detail – the hairstyles and facial hair, the grainy footage, the vintage Warner Brothers logo at the start. This sense of authenticity was bolstered by snippets of historical footage intercut with the movie; it was especially powerful in the early scene when the US embassy is stormed by Iranian protesters. Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston were all great, along with the lesser know actors playing the six staff; Ben Affleck’s performance was understated to the point of being semi-somnolent. The climax of the film was drawn out too much for dramatic effect. Overall, a very fine movie.

The title of this post comes from a line in the film that becomes a catchphrase for some of the characters. Alan Arkin’s character, a producer, is being badgered by a journalist who wants to know the meaning of the title of the fake film within the film – Argo. Eventually, he snaps and says, ‘Argo fuck yourself.’

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I read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy only about three years ago and enjoyed it very much – even the lesser, third book. The first two books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast form a kind of duology charting the birth and childhood of the 77th earl, Titus Groan, and the rise and downfall of the scheming murderer, Steerpike; they are written in a dark, baroque style and the castle that is the setting – Gormenghast – is as important a presence as any of the main characters. In Titus Alone, Titus has left Gormenghast and has adventures in new lands; this novel is not as well written as the earlier two and suffers greatly from the absence of the crumbling magnificence of the castle – and Titus himself is the least interesting of the characters from his home.

The third book was written while Mervyn Peake’s health declined and, although he lived for another nine years after its publication, Parkinson’s disease took away his ability to write a planned fourth book (and a fifth, sixth and seventh, perhaps – the whole series was meant to chronicle Titus’s entire life) in the series. Using a few pages and lists of ideas that her husband wrote for the fourth book – to be called Titus Awakes – Maeve Gilmore wrote her own conclusion to the series during the 1970s, which she entitled Search Without End. She didn’t attempt to have it published and she died in 1983. For last year’s centenary of Peake’s birth, the couple’s children decided that it should be brought to the public.

Like Titus Alone, Titus Awakes sees Titus travel through foreign lands; Gormenghast and its denizens are absent, apart from the first, brief chapter – one of two written by Peake himself. Gilmore’s writing doesn’t have anywhere near the beauty and density of the first two books, nor even of the third book, but it has a certain gentle melancholy that entirely suits the novel. In fact, there is a noticeable modulation of the style – the first half of the book is reminiscent of Peake’s style and the narrative is more dream-like as Titus wanders here and there and has various disjointed encounters; the second half is more relaxed in style, simpler and more realistic, and the story become a little more linear and driven by a motive.

While the first two books had fantasy overtones with the castle and its ceremonies and feudal hierarchy, and the third had science fiction elements, this volume feels more connected to our own world – especially at the end, where the link is quite deliberate. I wish I’d read the introduction by Brian Sibley beforehand – but I elected not to because it declared that it gave away elements of the plot. These elements are really key to understanding it however, and I’m going to mention them in the very next paragraph.

Not only does the story become more grounded in a reality that resembles our own as it progresses, but it becomes interlinked to the story of Peake’s own life. It is not made explicit in the text and I only realised this through reading the introduction, but Titus encounters an intense man, an artist suffering from a mentally or psychologically debilitating illness – and this mysterious man represents Peake himself. After a second encounter, Titus resolves to look for him and finds him, apparently healthy, on a small island with his children. The Peake character is travelling backwards through time, getting healthier. The island is Sark, where Peake and his family lived. Without knowing this, the very end of the story is inconclusive; this knowledge makes it much more satisfying and moving.

Titus Awakes, then, is not perfect, and won’t be to the taste of everyone who enjoyed the first two books, but it brings a much-needed sense of closure to the overall story and is an interesting and touching book all by itself.

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Last week, after less than a week of waiting, I got my visa issuance number from my recruiter. The next step was to submit my application to the Korean embassy in London. I decided that I would go down to hand it in in person. This would allow the staff to see it first and let me know if there was any problem (for instance, I wasn’t sure whether I should also hand over my old passport with my previous visas in it) – and I would be able to see friends while I was there. I considered staying down in London so I could pick my passport up when it was ready, but it seemed likely that it would take the full five working days or longer to process (a British friend from Korea advised me that that was likely – he’d received his only shortly before he was due to leave the country) and London is expensive.

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the BBC coverage of the US presidential election (elections to Congress weren’t covered in much detail). Americans got it right again – making up for electing George W Bush twice. Given that various Tea Party Republicans were voted out and liberal policies approved in referenda, I wonder whether Mitt Romney might have done a lot better if he’d been allowed to present himself as the moderate he supposedly really is. I eventually went to bed at 7am, meeting my sister and her kids on the way as they got up. I was able to rise again at the not unreasonable hour of midday.

The following night, I was in bed at about midnight and up again at five o’clock in order to get a 6:35 train to Manchester and an 8 o’clock coach to London (the outbound trip cost just £9 with National Express and the return £12.50 – which somehow managed to add up to £29.50 along with insurance, booking fee and so on).

The Korean embassy is on Buckingham Gate, just off Victoria and a short walk from Victoria Coach Station. The coach arrived at 13:20, so I got lunch from the Subway at the shopping mall adjacent to the railway station and arrived at the embassy just after 2pm, when they re-opened after lunch. The woman on duty at one of the windows inside told me assertively that the visa section was closed. I suggested to her that I could just hand my documents in, but that was unacceptable. As soon as I had this conversation, I realised that I’d been in exactly this situation some years ago, probably in 2008.

It wasn’t a problem though – except that my passport would be returned to me that little bit later and it would make planning my flight out that little bit trickier – I had time before my return coach in the morning to come back. I turned my thoughts to getting to my hostel down in the Isle of Dogs – the south-pointing peninsula bounded by a big loop of the Thames that is the location of Canary Wharf; it’s geographical feature that’s been familiar for many years because of the title sequence of EastEnders. I realised I’d forgotten to bring either of my Oyster cards with me, so, reasoning that I had plenty of time, I decided to walk.

I thought it might take a couple of hours – it took three. I got there a little after five o’clock, having walked along the north bank of the Thames for various parts of the way (and taken a few pictures of the attractively cloudy sky), and was starting to worry about meeting my friends on time (although we hadn’t actually set a time).

The Great Eastern Bestplace Inn turned out to be quite a pleasant place – very pubby downstairs, clean and whitewashed upstairs. Better still, my bed was £11.99 – half price. The shower, on the other hand was terrible: weak and uncertain in temperature.

I got the DLR and Tube back up to our rendezvous point in the general vicinity of Leicester Square. Drew met me as I was reading and drinking tea at McDonalds. We headed out shortly towards the big Odeon cinema, which has been our meeting place on more than one occasion – then headed back because Colin had gone to McDonalds looking for us.

Colin always has the information on where to eat, so we allowed him to guide us to an Indian restaurant. My Goa murg and mushroom rice was very tasty, but – shockingly – I couldn’t finish because I was getting a bit full. The meal came to around £55 for the three of us. Afterwards, we went to a Costa for coffee and more chit-chat. I introduced Drew and Colin to the pleasures of the Korean flower cards game, Go-Stop – or a simplified version thereof.

Then it was time to say goodbye for another lengthy period and we headed to our respective homes.

In the morning, I checked out of the hostel after a complementary breakfast of cornflakes, bread and jam and tea. Well – I left, anyway. There were no keys, only door codes, and I’d already paid, so there was no actual checking out to do. There was no one on the reception desk, so I couldn’t even tell them, ‘I’m checking out now.’

I returned to the embassy shortly before 10 o’clock. I went to the passport window, where there was a young woman on duty (not the same woman as the day before) and, before the word ‘Hello’ had barely passed my lips, she snapped, ‘Visa window open at ten o’clock. Take a ticket and wait over there.’

There was one other person ahead of me – a courier, judging by his high-visibility jacket. Once the visa window opened and this guy had finished he handed me the next number ticket (he must have taken two by mistake) and I handed my stuff over to the young Korean chap manning the counter. When I asked, he indicated I didn’t need to submit my old passport. There was a moment of humour when he passed me my yellow plectrum that had got stuck inside my passport when it had been in my pocket. He looked over my documents, I paid £80, got a receipt and that was that. I didn’t actually ask again (I’d already spoken to someone on the phone two or three days earlier) how long it would take, but a notice on the window made it clear I should expect it to be five working days (to which I added another day for it to be posted).

Afterwards, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks, got a coffee and on the internet, realised at nearly eleven that I had a coach to catch in half an hour, so off I went.

I outlined my progress to my recruiter in an e-mail, but as it was pretty much already the weekend, I didn’t hear anything back and haven’t so far. The worst thing that’ll happen is that they’ll book me a flight and I’ll be forced to miss it because I don’t have my passport, then I’ll arrive in Korea later and the school will have to get someone to cover any class time I miss.

We’ll see what happens next weekend.

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