Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burs

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Munson outdid himself today collecting burs around the farm. I was tempted to let him put up with them for a few days, but the longer they sit on his coat, the further they work themselves down into the undercoat or tail. It took me over an hour to remove all these, lacerating my wrists with the abrasions from the bur spines.

Bouquet of old electrical plugs

I’ve been helping Mark,our electrician, on his last day here until his return in November. At the conclusion of his work I got my own flushing toilet and hot and cold water supply. There was also quite a bit of work running power sockets to various rooms and repairing switches so they’d be safe the children. The main house is so big and echo-y: I heard Munson exploring upstairs and it sounded just like a grown man walking around. On the other hand Mark’s “singing” at the other end of the house has removed any curiosity I might have had about what Neil Diamond songs might sound like if covered by Bob Dylan: Hmmm.

Brent and Jean arrived with all the kids today for their first night on the farm. Tomorrow they’ll be introducing them at local schools with Monday being the first proper school day.

My carte-grise (vehicle registration papers) has finally arrived after about eight weeks of valiant struggle. The online service cartegriseminute.fr had been sitting on my application form for weeks until my landlady Anna called them on my behalf. For some reason they found it impossible to express in email  that they needed me to send an additional document from the garage where I’d purchased the car. I have one more step now, which is to get new plates for the car as the ministry who issue the carte-grise have changed the registration number. This was something that you had to just “know” as the correspondence accompanying the new document doesn’t mention the change or the statutory requirements that ensue.

It’s a bit surprising that in a country that demands so much paperwork from clients for every transaction, that there is so little useful explanatory information provided in advance. It’s as if you are required to fail the first one or two times you attempt something instead of streamlining the process to waste less time and resources. There’s no moral lesson to be learnt from these failures except the hollow victory gained by some fonctionnaire telling you that you have done the wrong thing (again). I’ve been having conversations with Brent about educating his kids, and providing the right mix of inspiration and incentive for self-motivated learning. No child would learn well in an environment where they follow directions perfectly but are failed repeatedly because the rules provided are not the rules in force.

Recently there has been a spate of major national strikes or grèves over the French government’s intention to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. It occurred to me that if the bureaucratic messes here were sorted out, then everyone could get their working lives over in at least two less years…. But there are burs in every system….

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Grimey fairy tales

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photomike-e1285798033809Interior cleaning proceeds. I spent over a day finishing off the kitchen, attacking wall stains in the central downstairs hallway and finally addressing the gunge on the walls in the dining room (fittingly nicknamed the mess). Scrubbing brushes don’t seem to get enough traction on these surfaces; rags and scourers are the best tools for the job. If I run around and squirt the walls with a degreaser before bed, it really helps to reduce the amount of elbow grease I’ll need to work on them later.

I start each room by cleaning the ceiling beams with a shop-vac or cobweb broom. In France the latter is called a tête du loup or wolf’s head, which I find quite understandable given the amount of filth that Munson has been collecting this week. After that, I work my way around the room with rags and bucket of soapy water, cleaning to about the 2m level that I can reach. Then I get a stepladder and work my way around the room to do the higher (usually less greasy) sections of wall and make a second pass over the lower section. Add in wall-mounted cupboards, or charcoal and paraffin blackened sections over the fireplace and the work really adds up.

It’s over two days since I’ve passed through the farm gates, and aside from my tramp around the perimeter, I don’t think I’ve been out of my woolly ug slippers the whole time. Unlike poor Cinders who spent her days similarly scrubbing the hearth I won’t be going to a ball anytime soon, but we do have a link in our footwear. While most people are familiar with the tale of Cinderella through Charles Perrault’s version in the “Mother Goose Tales”, the glass slippers he wrote of may have been fur slippers in earlier accounts. Language Log gives some analysis of Perrault’s pantoufles de verre (glass slippers) versus the possibility of squirrel fur (vair) – or in other contexts ermine. Snopes’ description of ermine turns it to the very evocative winter weasel fur. Maybe Munson and Smeggs can turn out some loires/dormice for this purpose.

Sunset over the corral

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My nocturnal guests continue to increase in number and variety. By 11p my reading lamp is the only light source for at least a kilometre in every direction, so insects, bats and amphibians seek out my company.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Perimeter Walk

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Early this Sunday morning I set out with Munson and Smeggs to walk the perimeter of the farm. I wasn’t actually sure of the exact boundary, but I figured that following a few boundary fences and hedges would allow us to take in most of the 69 hectares of pasture, cornfield and vineyard around us.

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I’ve kept Munson on leash for this as he has less country common sense than Smeggs, and I still have visions of him chasing down one of the local adders as he plunges into a pile of logs or blackberry thicket. Possibly worse is that he should find one of the other small lakes and immerse himself in brackish gunk.

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Along the way we encounter a pair of hunters and their dogs. I engaged the elder of the two –father of the other – and identify myself as one of the new residents of the farm. I’m reminded that I need to get a bright orange collar to make Munson more visible and a less likely accidental target.

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Munson’s backyard size jumped from about 50 square metres in Sydney to more than 10 times that in our Comminges yard, and now 200 times as big again with the farm. One of the main reasons for the walk is to satisfy some of his curiosity about what might lie more than 5 minutes from the central farmhouse so that he is less likely to wander. About six years ago I took Bondi and Dougal to stay on a friend’s property in Kangaroo Valley in Australia. On the first day they sniffed out the boundary fences, and thereafter hung around the verandah or sneaked inside to curl up on someone’s bed.

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Munson needs to transition from city dog with regular daily walks and play companions to beast of the countryside with more open space and unstructured time, albeit with Smeggs, Tosca and the kids around to entertain him. For the near term, I’m keeping him inside at  night, so he’s less tempted to chase loires further afield from the house.

Loires are the local “fat” dormice, certainly much louder and more active than the Dormouse that sat around the Mad Hatter’s tea service. Back in the Comminges they lived in the interstices of the building and could be heard every night scratching and screaming in the walls, ceiling and chimney spaces. Late at night I would be sitting at the computer while things fell off the walls or bits of ceiling detritus dropped around the table, disturbed by rodent histrionics.

There’s a wood pile not far from the house which I believe houses a number of loires. Each day Smeggs and Munson leap and paw at logs and holes trying to uncover one of them.

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The central part of the day is taken up by more work on the main house. Mark, our handyman is due to return tomorrow to finish running a water supply to my quarters. Brent and I have been given instructions to hang some piping across the ceiling of the cellar at the back of the house. Brent’s also managed to install a toilet upstairs, which is one huge improvement for me, although with 3 locked doors and a few dozen steps between me and it, it will still be a carefully planned manoeuvre to reach it during the night.

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The day concludes with kitchen demolition and cleaning. The old galley kitchen needs its ratpoop-lined cupboards removed as well as various wall-mounted gas and vent fixtures. After that, hours of scrubbing of sink, wall tiles, cupboard doors and floor to obliterate decades of oily residue. At the end of that we have something that actually resembles a kitchen.

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After so much fun with exploration, and the feeling of achievement in the house, I’m rather pissed to discover that my Panasonic camera has decided that both my batteries are fakes and now throws up an error message “This battery cannot be used” and turns itself off. I think I’ve pretty much had it with their camera products. This does mean that I don’t have a decent camera for the foreseeable future so will be falling back to using my reserve point and shoot.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Frogs and cows and swamp things

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I made a room within a room for us last night. On one side a wall of wrapped up shelves and kitchen utensils, and on another, a bastide of book boxes. In the angle of this L-shaped divider is Munson’s mattress. I sat up watching DVDs while snipping the ends off my electrical appliances and rewiring them with French plugs. Some of them have already gone through the indignity of a snip for the US, a resnip on the return to Australia, and now a further sacrifice to join the European Union.

This morning brought forth a small sign of country life – a little frog ( not the President ) sitting before my bedside cabinet. I wondered what may have enticed him in, and then found that the ceiling was admitting some rain due to a wind-torn hole over the chimney. This caused me to do some shuffling of furniture and boxes where the water had pooled on the stone floor, but no damage was done.

Brent turned up this morning with Smeggs in the ute, so Munson was delighted to show her every smelly thing on the farm. But first he had to race down to the back paddock and “talk” to the cows. Watching him from the other side of a line of electrified fencing, I was worried that he was going to get immediately stomped on. He stood about 20m away from the small herd and gave them a good woo-woo-w00 lecture, steadily retreating as they came to shoo off the noisy intruder.

The rest of the day was quite wet for both of us. I was busy cleaning in the main house, and after dismantling the kitchen cupboards, had hours of scrubbing of walls, tiles, sink cupboard doors and floor to do to remove the residue of decades of neglect. Munson, on the other hand, had located a small lake behind the other house and had indulged himself by wading through the scummy water until he had become some dank hybrid of swamp thing and bathroom rug. Add to this the snarl of thistle-y burrs in his dense coat and the picture is complete.

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With hot water available through the house, Munson became the unwilling recipient of the first bath. I suspect that it’s not going to last longer than overnight…

Friday, September 24, 2010

Autumn Leavings

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The move to the Gers farm was accomplished very rapidly for me. Once Brent and Jean had signed the papers and took possession, work began on having a flushing toilet and hot water available in the main house. At this point it was very valuable to have someone on site all the time so I packed up my little apartment, waved farewell to the Comminges and by mid afternoon had unpacked and assembled my bed in the Gers.

Ahead of that the most important thing to have up and running was my espresso machine. It was in its own special box, and luckily I only had to rummage through two kitchen boxes before I located the grinder and the remaining accessories to apply to a newly opened pack of Lavazza beans. Pulling a few lattes for everyone on site that day was the best thing I could have done. It’s as if Munson’s Cafe had opened a new branch in the southwest of France. I’ll stake a claim that it’s the best coffee you’ll find in the area. Sadly, almost all cafes I’ve visited in France and Spain use UHT milk in their coffees, which is mildly revolting.

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We’re a day into Autumn with the increasingly cooler nights to be spent in a sleeping bag on my bed. The mattress is still in its wrapping, and will probably stay like that until I move into my permanent quarters in about 5 weeks.

Munson has some further reacclimatisation to do, and seems to miss having Smeggs around to play with at his whim. However he does seem to enjoy having familiar-smelling items unwrapped before him.

The move-in schedule is extremely aggressive, and needs to be, as managing all the preparatory work and three young children with a daily round-trip of 3 hours is just not feasible. The next week will be a little like camping indoors for me, admittedly with the luxury of all my furniture, a piano and caffeine coursing through my system whenever I need it. Cell phone access is erratic at best, but it’s all we have until phone and internet are laid on. Further posts will be delayed until that’s all in order.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Doors and floors and windows

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Between unloading my container and sitting down for Peter’s feast, I did some more cleaning in the main building. Colourfully rustic, this great Gascon farm house is still draped with more cobwebs than Miss Havisham’s drawing room, and has as many creepy surprises as Shelob’s lair. At least once an hour, something the size of my hand drops or scurries into my peripheral vision. Sometimes it’s just a dislodged birdnest, or a desiccated insect remain but quite often it’s a gigantic spider or bunch of hornets. My ultrasonic scream power has no effect on them, so between brooms, dustpans and boots, every time I encounter these there’s a clatter of metal and sole like the cast of Tap Dogs invading a Caribbean steel pan concert.

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Moving day on the north side

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We got to the farm an hour ahead of its scheduled 9am arrival, which turned out to be a completely wasted effort. A little after 9.15, a small three ton truck bearing some guys from a local moving company turned up to unload the container coming from Fos-sur-mer, the port at Marseilles. Four of us stood at the front of the farmhouse staring out to the main road like sailors’ widows gazing out to sea.

After an hour of calling the local shipping agent, we finally learnt that they’d rescheduled the delivery for 2pm and hadn’t bothered to notify me as customer, or the movers who had a two-hour round trip from their depot. The agents had already failed to impress with less than stellar communication over the preceding weeks and had slapped me with a last minute €333 charge for a few days storage.

Deviation Condom

Seeing no point in hanging around for a further four hours we agreed to reconvene at 2, and I took Munson into Vic-Fezensac, our closest neighbouring town. It was market day and we dropped ourselves at an outdoor cafe table to watch the passing parade. Munson delighted everyone by whoring himself out on his back, rolling around before the cafe door for whoever would rub his belly or tickle his ears. 

Condom has long had a  large British contingent, and this has spread south to centres like Vic and Éauze. There’s a well-known market stall catering to the appetites of the English (tinned pies anyone?) and I could even pick out some Australian accents at cafe tables.

Mattress fail

The container truck rolled into the farm after 2, and we managed to get the whole thing unloaded in less than 90 minutes. Getting the piano down was the most difficult task, but the smaller truck was backed up to it and slid down a ramp, after which it could be lower on a hydraulic ramp. I ripped open the crate and removed enough wrapping to test the basic piano mechanism. It seems OK for now but rather muffled with all the remaining packaging.

Munson was quite miffed about being tied up beside the action all day, but given the malamute propensity for standing in front of people carrying things I thought it the wiser course. I sliced open the wrapping of a bookcases I’d stuffed with some of his things and laid out his mattress to cheer him up. Somewhere in the ten weeks since it was all packed up, Munson lost the knack of lying on it properly.

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Lindy, Munson, Peter

The day ended with a small dinner party at Peter’s in Condom out of which Munson did rather well from leftovers.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Fifth Musketeer

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My shipment of furniture from Australia is being delivered to the farm tomorrow at 9am, so I asked Peter if we could overnight with him in Condom to get an early start. When we stepped into the central square we found this new sculpture positioned by the cathedral.

The over-sized figures seen above are of course the Musketeers of whom Alexander Dumas wrote about in the 1840s. In the first and most famous of the books, The Three Musketeers, young d’Artagnan travels from Gascony to Paris and meets up with Athos, Porthos and Aramis. All four characters were loosely based on real Gascons, with d’Artagnan’s antecedent being born in the village of Lupiac almost exactly 400 years ago. There you’ll find a museum dedicated to him, and since it’s only 30 minutes away from the farm, I’m sure we’ll get there one day soon enough.

This particular set of statues is in Condom due to Lupiac being in the heart of Armagnac liquor producing area, and Condom itself being the site of the annual feast of the Grand Chapter of the Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’Armagnac who promote the local spirit (in both senses) around the world. They’ve been gifted to the town by a locally-born Senator, and are the work of Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli who is also President of the Russian Academy of the Arts.

Even with each of these rather kitsch figures being over 2m tall, they still don’t make Munson look particularly small.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The fossil record

Prior to packing up for France, I decided to finally eliminate the few boxes of VHS tapes which have been trailing me in and out of storage since the last century. The movies were generally easy to dispose of, although it’s surprising how many have not yet transitioned to DVD. Likewise there are many old TV shows that I recorded off-air which didn’t even make it to VHS and now survive in the public memory through clips on YouTube.

1989-09-15 Raging Thunder

In addition to this material were a couple of tapes with me displayed in various states of fresh-faced twinkiness before I became the hardened man “living in some mediaeval Languedocien village at the foot of the Pyrenees with an enormous wolf dog!” (thanks Brett). They are the only pieces of video of me pre-Bondi of which I’m aware. Before I went to bed last night I ran a program overnight to condense these to manageable file-sizes. Looking at them again this morning, I realised that the first of them was shot twenty-one years ago today – a few fragments from a white-water rafting day in the north of Queensland while on a scuba diving vacation – probably less than thirty seconds in all. The trying-too-hard-to-be-funny voice-over from the rafting company singles me out twice as Jason Donovan (the hair) and Tom Cruise (the sunglasses) – both resemblances being unintended misdemeanours.

Moving forward almost a decade, the next video dates from about April 1998: I’m giving a talk in Seattle  on a piece of software for which I had designed the user interface, so there’s about thirty minutes of me (with tee-shirt tucked into shorts – why god why?) as gesticulating geek.

1998-2003 Seattle

It’s just occurred to me that each of these videos is near of one of my dogs’ birthplaces. Munson came from central Queensland, and Bondi was born in Seattle about six months after this talk was given.

Tracing my fossil record forward through these jumps in time and space, there’s certainly no hints of the next chapters in my life which I can divide up according to where I was working or living, and the significant people in my life. The long Bondi chapter has been pretty amazing, and I’m just getting started on Munson’s, plus seeing what else will characterise the next decade.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Working dogs

View from party room

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Summer’s heat is at last beginning to falter, the sunflowers turning down their heads in sorrow.

The farm move-in date approacheth and so we had a little working bee today to start clearing the dust and detritus from the main house, which has been unoccupied for some time. My container from Australia is being delivered at the end of the week and with my quarters unavailable till November, I’ve got the party annexe to live in.

Today’s work: removing spiders, birds’ nests and many old issues of Paris Match from said annexe. With the windows flung open, this view to the north over a field of corn is subtly enhanced by the aroma of armagnac casks from the cellar below.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Mopin’ muffin

a little puddle of mope

I went into Toulouse today – no photos sorry, as I’d left my camera’s SD card in my computer at home. I got an email from Jean halfway through the day with a photo of someone who wasn’t happy about being left behind: “He's a little puddle of mope.”

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Hautes-Pyrénées

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For the last few weeks I’ve mainly stared at the Pyrénées as I’ve criss-crossed the local area, with the exception of one level incursion into Spain through the Val d’Aran. After a few days around home, I thought it would be nice to take Munson out for some random touring.

We went to Tarbes first, which is one of the larger centres at this end of the Midi-Pyrénées. Being a Sunday it was pretty closed up aside from cafes and some street markets. There were plenty of fountains around for Munson to play in, both for wading, or – as above – running through jets of water.

I looked at my road atlas and saw a scenic route south through Bagnères-de-Bigorre and Bagnères-de-Luchon straddling the edge of the National Park of the Pyrénées which would fill the afternoon. We stopped at the first of these, which has a pretty town centre, a central boulevard enclosing several cafes’ tables, and a little island in the river Adoure from which I wanted to let Munson have a swim, but thought he might be a bit too brave in its rushing waters.

Bagneres-de-Bigorre

Route through Hauté-Pyrénées Col d'Aspin

Picking up the route south, we soon began a rapid ascent of one of the Tour de France’s most arduous peaks, the Col d’Aspin.  In the midst of this ascent I realised this was going to be one of those roads with an abundance of ascent and a surfeit of barriers around the exposed edges. At about the point where I realised I couldn’t turn around anywhere, we reached the highest point where dozens of cars, bikes and buses were parked for tourers to enjoy the admittedly stupendous views.

Col d'Aspin view over Arreau

What I really wasn’t prepared for was the descent towards the town of Arreau, which appeared like a distant toy-town. My vertigo made this a white-knuckled half hour in low gears, trying to stay in the middle of the road and not look at the terrain plunging to my right, except when oncoming traffic forced me to edge a little bit in that direction.

Col d'Aspin view over Arreau

The prize at the bottom was Arreau which contains a few squat castles and gothic wooden houses.

Arreau

I drove a bit beyond this town along the same mountain route – which once was the main road connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in these parts – but discovered that between Arreau and Bagnères-de-Luchon was another vertiginous roller-coaster: the Col de Peyresourde. Having two “thrills” like that in one  year day was too much, so I circled back to Arreau and exited the mountains by a gentle northward road through to Lannemezan.

Arreau

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

September starts well

Munson at the bank

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone around Les Comminges but more than a few significant developments.

First: the big news is that we may be moving onto the Gers farm as early as next week. There’s a complication that the house I’ll be in will not be vacated by the current tenants for some weeks after that. My container of furniture from Australia has arrived in Marseilles, and the best course of action seems to be to have it delivered to the farm ASAP, extract bedding and other short term needs, and then transfer it all over to the other house later. Moving the piano will be the biggest headache, as it’s crated and will have to be moved a few hundred metres and then up some stairs.

After a month of gathering new paperwork, and exploring alternates, I have finally opened a bank account. One of the national banks has an English speaking regional service who are happy to liaise between customer and branch to open accounts and help with other services. Some of the other banks with such services are only for the benefit of British and Irish residents in France, so of no use to we poor colonials. It was also important for me to get a bank who would accept my current temporary address to open an account, and then allow a simple address transfer later. The last bank I tried would have required me to re-apply for an account when I moved to a new department (Haute-Garonne to Gers) less than 100km away.

This week, I was able to pre-arrange the paperwork needed and have an appointment booked at a convenient branch close to the farm in the Gers, so that my English-speaking liaison could be contactable by phone to iron out any confusion. As it was, I arrived to find that a short letter in English had been prepared setting out the bank’s offer and various options to check off. I was able to proceed with the very friendly local officer without any language issues arising during the meeting.

I’ve no doubt also that today’s success was helped by having Munson present during the meeting as lucky charm. Every other business or official transaction I’ve tried here has only worked when he has been present. After a few minutes sitting by my side, he decided that he would prefer sitting under my conseiller’s chair. So he padded around and made himself quite comfortable stretched out on the other side of the desk. Through the meeting, other bank staff peered through our office window to see where le gros chien had parked himself.

With a French bank account I’ll be able to establish accounts for local utilities, and get a phone contract. French mobile internet access rates are among the highest in the world, moreso if you’re on a PAYG SIM. Two SMS messages and a few minutes of WAP access ran my phone account to nil in under 24 hours, for about the same cost as a month of unlimited usage in the UK! The other ability I get with a local credit/debit card is to buy petrol at unattended pumps throughout Europe. Needing fuel on a Sunday, during a lunch-hour or at other out-of-hours times nearly left me stranded on a few occasions during my European travels with Bondi.


As the last week of school-holidays drew to a close, the adult members of our group have been putting our heads together to work on pressing issues in the French language. Recognising the important role of gender, I wondered if a tribute to a (male) person was an hommage,  then does this mean that the French word for drag act is femmage? Should one then say that American products like Cheez Whiz or Easy Cheese are a frommage?

In other dairy mysteries, I’m trying to find a local yoghurt with the consistency and flavour of Australian yoghurts. I’ve tried a number of local varieties, which tend to be very thin or just have the buttery blandness of most international brands. Fromage frais (also available in Australia) is close in consistency – and given that it’s not actually made from cheese could be said to be a local frommage – but it’s not really the same. I laughed when I saw some dairy products here billed as onctueux as the English unctuous is normally reserved for a smooth, oily manner in a person. My quest continues.

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