New Year’s Eve: A Catalan Celebration!

New Year’s Eve: A Catalan Celebration!

We are three weeks into 2015 (how did that happen!) and I’m still enjoying the fresh start feel of a new year. But, January is also a great time for reflecting on past goals – and one of my recent travel-related missions has been to ring in the new year in a different city every year!

Last year I counted down to midnight alongside friendly strangers and my best friend by the Mississippi River in New Orleans! From devouring beignets in Jackson Square to catching beads on Bourbon Street, we thoroughly enjoyed our NOLA experience. Fireworks over the river. Drinking hurricanes in the street. Dancing the night away. If you haven’t been to New Orleans yet… then maybe 2015 is your time!

New Year's Eve in New Orleans

New Year’s Eve in New Orleans

This year I flew from Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain on December 31st with just enough time to prepare for some authentic Catalan celebrations. In my pre-trip research I discovered that the most important Spanish New Year tradition is to eat twelve grapes just before midnight. You eat one at a time at each chime of the clock as it counts down to midnight and then you toast with Cava, a sparkling wine produced in Catalonia. My friend Megan and I chose to pre-drink our lovely rosé “champagne” before we left our apartment but we brought the grapes with us for the midnight countdown! IMG_3094 The main event was held at the spectacular Font Magica de Montjuic (or Magic Fountain) near the Plaza Espanya. I think we ended up here at least three times during our stay in Barcelona. It’s fantastic by both day and night but especially on New Year’s Eve when the fountains were lit up and dancing in time to the music. It was a short metro ride to the festivities and the mild winter weather made it easy to stand outside. The perks of living on the Mediterranean!

At 11:30pm the main stage featured a fabulous show by La Fura dels Baus, a Catalan theatrical group with a 15 metre high iron man sculpture. My explanation probably won’t make a lot of sense but essentially it was a human tower of lit up figures high above the crowd. Definitely my first time seeing anything like it. IMG_2970 IMG_2969 And lastly, a fireworks show over the Palau Nacional! Apparently, this was the first year that Barcelona had ever had a fireworks show so it looks like we timed our trip perfectly. IMG_3084 I have had two back-to-back fantastic New Year’s Eve celebrations and I sure hope the streak continues. I don’t know where I’ll be in 2016 but it definitely has some steep competition.

Where do you think I should ring in 2016? Leave a comment below.

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2014: A Year in Review

2014: A Year in Review

W h a t.  A.  Y e a r !  I can’t believe that it’s actually time to say goodbye to 2014 and what has been my best travel year since 2006. I somehow managed to squeeze 18 trips into the past 12 months and I did it all while holding down a full-time office job. That’s right people… you CAN travel the world without quitting your day job. To celebrate the end of an absolutely incredible year, here’s a review of my 2014 travel adventures.

1. New Orleans (January)

I began 2014 with a bang and a kiss (teehee) while watching fireworks over the Mississippi River in New Orleans! This is definitely one for the record books and redeemed a holiday that I had pretty much given up on. Now it’s my new mission to celebrate NYE in a new city every year! photo-3 2. Victoria (February)

One of many weekend trips to Vancouver Island to visit my best friend (guest blogger Katie Smith) – it was cold. So cold that the fountains in front of parliament froze over. You don’t see that everyday.

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A less cold weekend back in Victoria to visit same friend… yeah, I’m awesome that way ;)

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4. Lake Whatcom (April)

Only the single best girls weekend ever! Okay, that might have been the wine talking but seriously, we had a great time checking out the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival and relaxing by a very lovely lake.  IMG_0652 5. Winnipeg (May)

At long last, I made my first trip back to Winnipeg in nearly four years. I used to go all the time (to visit family) but with domestic flight prices soaring, it’s a rare occurrence these days. Lucky for me I have connections and when my WestJetter friend hooked me up with 40% off – I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to catch my dear cousin (the actress!) on closing night of her musical. IMG_0932 6. Las Vegas (May)

VEGAS BABY!! Okay, so maybe my long weekend in Sin City wasn’t exactly what movies are made about… but it was fun! I hadn’t been since I was a teenager so the adult version was a whole new experience. IMG_0829 7. Vietnam (June)

My first trip to Asia and I chose Vietnam (by way of China) and decided to go all by myself too. Well, I didn’t end up being alone for long as I made a lot of great friends on the road. Two weeks went by all too fast as I sweat (holy hot batman!) my way up the coast enjoying beautiful beaches, amazing food, and fascinating cities. IMG_1144 8. Lac Le Jeune (July)

My first (real) camping trip was a roaring success! My expert camper friends planned a perfect two days in the Central Interior where we basically just lazed around the lake and ate. Summer in BC = Bliss! Lac Le Jeune 9. Kelowna (August)

Last year’s annual mother/daughter(s) weekend took us to Whistler Village where my sister-in-law and I took the plunge by bungee jumping for our first times. This year we headed to wine country for a perfect weekend of boating, drinking, touring… basically living the good life! IMG_1616 10. Whistler (August)

When my friend Katie casually mentioned that she’d never been to Whistler before, I hung up on her and called a hotel immediately. Whistler is an annual summer retreat for me and I’ve been at least 15 times. So, I was thrilled to show off this little resort town and all of the off-season activities it has to offer. IMG_1801 11. Tofino (August)

This trip! The trip that I never thought was actually going to happen. First we were going to Alaska. Then we were going to Hawaii. Then we ditched the idea completely. Then we were back to Alaska. But, by the end of it all, we settled on Tofino/Ucluelet for our first family vacation since 2007.

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12. Sunshine Coast (September)

When my friend Kendra got a job in the seaside town of Gibsons, I knew that it was finally  time to take a trip to the beautiful Sunshine Coast. We spent a perfect final weekend of summer driving up the coast and feasting our eyes on the impressive Skookumchuck Narrows!

Sechelt, Sunshine Coast

Sechelt, Sunshine Coast

13. Prince George (September)

Not the most glamourous destination on the list but it was travel and a new city. This work trip took me the furthest north that I’ve ever been in Canada and I got to squeeze in a quick visit with my friend Mel. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find impressive old growth forests nearby and a lot more activity than I would have initially guessed in such a remote community. This really is Beautiful British Columbia from top to bottom.IMG_2156 14. Boston (November)

One of my favourite benefits of traveling is the great people you meet along the way. Megan and I became fast friends while visiting Vietnam earlier this year and we were already googling flight prices between Vancouver and Boston before we even went our separate ways. I knew right away that I wanted to see New England in the autumn and I lucked out with an absolutely glorious weekend of blue skies and radiant fall colours. The Northeast is definitely a region I am eager to explore in more depth.IMG_2484 15. Seattle (November)

A frequent stomping ground for concerts, shopping trips, cruise departures, and cheap flights over the years, Seattle has become a second home in many ways. And now, with my family’s recent obsession with the Seattle Seahawks, we have more excuses to go and more love than ever for our sister city on the West Coast.  IMG_2506 16. Victoria again (November)

Back to Vancouver Island again… this time for some pre-Christmas festivities in sub-zero temperatures. Note to self… start visiting in summer from now on. Brr…

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17. Portland (December)

When I found out that my cousin Jordan and his wife Emily were moving from the mid-West to the weirdest coolest city in America… I couldn’t start scheming fast enough. One weekend was barely enough time to get a taste of what the city has to offer so expect many more adventures in Oregon in the months and years to come!

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18. Lisbon (December)

When the office shuts down over the holidays, why not celebrate in… P O R T U G A L ! This quick Euro trip reunites me (once again!!) with my Boston Bestie, Megan. We are spending the final four days of 2014 in beautiful Lisbon… and the travels don’t stop there! Follow my adventures into 2015 and see how (and where!) I ring in the new year!

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2014 By the Numbers:

Countries Visited: 3 (2 new ones): USA / VietnamPortugal

States Visited: 5 (2 new ones): Louisiana / Washington / Nevada / Massachusetts / Oregon

Plane Rides Taken: 12 (I count a flight as a flight regardless of how many segments or layovers it has). Of those flights, four were heavily discounted by family/friend discounts, two were paid for by work, two were almost covered entirely by points, and the remaining four inspire me to keep looking for great deals.

Other Modes of Transportation: 10 ferries, 3 overnight trains, 3 buses (long-haul), 1 motorcycle, and more vehicles than I care to count.

Airports Visited: 16 (YVR, MSY, SEA, YWG, YXS, LAX, BOS, AMS, LIS, BCN, BLI, LAS, CAN, SGN, HAN, MCI)

Beds Slept In: 26. Of those, 10 were hotels, 7 were crashing with family or friends, 3 were sleeper trains,  2 were house rentals, one was an Airbnb apartment rental, one was a bed & breakfast, one was a tent, and one was my own bed!

My Top 10 Favourite Cities

According to my Trip Advisor travel map, I’ve been to 265 cities and counting! I believe that this stat gives me a bit of credibility in listing some of my favourites thus far. I wholeheartedly recommend all of these cities and have visited half of them more than once. As always, I reserve the right to update this list whenever I like because I’m constantly visiting fabulous new destinations. But, for now at least, here are my top 10 favourite cities.

My Top 10 Favourite Cities

San Diego, California

La Jolla

I first visited San Diego on a family vacation when I was 10 years old. We did the typical touristy activities like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. I loved them both and even got called up on stage during two of the shows (my 15 minutes of fame). Flash forward a decade and my views have certainly changed. I may no longer support animal captivity but fortunately SD still has a plethora of amazing (cruelty free) things to do – try whale watching or surfing instead. When one of my best friends moved to the city in 2012 I was beyond excited about frequently visiting (and I have!). With blissful temperatures year-round, stunning cliffs and beaches, and amazing restaurants, San Diego is my favourite winter getaway. I could even see myself living here someday – Hello Vitamin D!

Paris, France

Paris

A wise woman once said, “Paris is always a good idea” and I couldn’t agree more. If you were to visit my apartment, one thing would quickly become apparent, and that is that J’adore Paris! I can’t possibly think of a city with more class and culture. Just imagine perusing the markets in Montmartre, strolling the grounds of les Jardins du Luxembourg, or savouring a crepe on the Champs-Élysées. An exemplary model of urban planning, this world-class city has so many unique neighbourhoods to explore. Not to mention being home to some of the world’s most famous sights; L’arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Le Louvre, and La Tour Eifel, to name a few. Now if only I could remember my 8 years of French lessons…

Rome, Italy

Rome

Ah Roma… a textbook example of why you sometimes need to revisit a city to truly appreciate it. Ten years after my first visit, I went back to the eternal city to discover what I had missed back in my teenage years. Yes, I remembered that the monuments were impressive and that the gelato was tasty but I couldn’t seem to understand what the fuss was all about. Well, let me tell you – Rome is simply magical. The entire city is like an open air museum with rich history spanning more than 2,500 years and amazing architecture around every corner. You could easily spend years in Rome and still not discover it all. I’ve thrown my coin in the Trevi Fountain twice and I’m sure I’ll be back again!

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik

My inaugural trip to the pearl of the Adriatic was almost ruined by a missed train and a spiral of lost connections. Fortunately, I pushed passed the roadblocks with the lovely premonition that I was about to fall in love. Most of the cities on this list are places that I’ve courted over several trips but Dubrovnik is my only one night stand. So, you can imagine how intoxicating a city it must be to have such power over me so quickly. Well let me tell you that one walk around the old city walls is all it took to have me spouting off grand declarations and adding Croatia to every list in my book. Dubrovnik is quite simply the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen and even though our time together was brief, it left a lasting impression on me. I hope I won’t have to call her The One that Got Away for long.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh

Edinburgh was one of the very last stops on my 8 month European backpacking adventure in 2005/2006. I arrived there feeling a bit of travel burnout and was definitely looking forward to heading home. Fortunately I arrived to perfect spring weather and a gorgeous city dripping with classic European charm. Edinburgh has a distinctly medieval feel with cobblestone streets, Gothic architecture, and a castle resting on an extinct volcano. But, it’s also a great city for young people and maybe even a place to find love… I mean if it worked for Will & Kate! I have yet to hear a negative review of this Scottish gem so if it isn’t on your bucket list yet… you know what to do.

Bogota, Colombia

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This is one that may raise some eyebrows. Bogota is a very unconventional choice and probably won’t make many top ten lists (unless you’re looking at the negative side). But, I don’t care what the critics say – I have my own opinions and my own experiences and Bogota won me over big time. It likely had a lot to do with my personal tour guide / travel agent friend who hosted and entertained me the entire 5 days, but that also proves that there is plenty to love about Colombia’s capital. The historic district La Candelaria (pictured above) has lovely Spanish Colonial and Baroque architecture with a wealth of churches and squares to fill your camera. The city has great shopping and dining options plus Monserrate, one of the most beautiful mountain top attractions I’ve ever seen – the funicular ride to the top is a must-do for all tourists. Transportation may not be super easy (although I was kind of taxi fairy) and English still isn’t widely spoken (if at all) but the effort was definitely worth it to discover the inner beauty of this very misunderstood city.

Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg

Visiting Salzburg was the realization of a childhood dream – to step into the world of Fräulein Maria and the Von Trapp children. After growing up with an obsessive passion for the Sound of Music I knew I had to do the official SOM tour when I finally made it to the famous city – and it did not disappoint. Even in the fall, the Mirabell Gardens (pictured above) with views of Hohensalzburg Castle were enchanting. The nearby palaces, abbey, and Lake District easily appeased the fan girl in me and proved that my adoration of Austria was well deserved. But, the city has even more to offer. As the birth place of Mozart, culture in the way of museums and music is at a premium and the lovely riverside hosts one of my favourite little Christmas markets in the winter. Although it is much smaller than Vienna and harder to avoid tourist groups (sorry – that was me), it is worth your time and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Florence, Italy

Florence

Tuscany. That’s probably the only descriptive word that I need to use to explain why I love Florence so much, but this is a blog, so I will elaborate. Firenze is another city with a medieval feel. Often considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is so easy to get swept away with the impressive art (Michelangelo’s statue of David), gorgeous churches (Duomo and Santa Croce), and unique bridges (Ponte Vecchio). I loved exploring the winding streets and discovering epic views (see above) from the Piazzale Michelangelo. And to top it all off, Florence is where I first discovered gelato (Tiramisu flavoured nonetheless)! There’s something dreamlike about this part of the world and it’s orange roof tops – it easily makes my list.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Welcome to Nawlins y’all! There is just something special about the South that makes me want to slow my speech and eat something fried… but maybe that’s just the Bourban talking. Joking aside, New Orleans is a truly amazing city that in many ways doesn’t even feel like part of America. With buildings dating back to the 1700s and a unique French influence, Louisiana is easily one of the most interesting of the 50 states. Known for its delicious Cajun food, amazing jazz music, beautiful colonial architecture, and the wild and crazy Mardi Gras – NOLA has something for everyone. You can party in the street all night long or step back in time on a beautiful antebellum or creole plantation. The city has faced a lot of adversity with its history of slavery and recent tragedies like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But, what I saw here was beautiful resilience, hope, and a whole lot of fun! Do your part to help and make New Orleans your next vacation stop.

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Vancouver

My city. My home. My happy place! The past two years of living in Vancouver have been some of the very best of my life. I still pinch myself every time I cross the Burrard Street Bridge (which is usually twice per day) because I can’t believe that this is my real life. Vancouver is by far my favourite place on earth. Wherever you look you see water or mountains or both! You can ski, golf, bike, sail and kayak– all on the same day. Not only is this city breathtakingly beautiful but it is bursting with activity, diversity, and general awesomeness (that’s a technical term)! In Vancity we know all about living well – we are clean and green. We love yoga and craft beer and playing outside all year long. If you’re not planning a visit to the magnificent Pacific Northwest – then you should be!

Honourable Mention:

NYE in New Orleans!

When I decided to celebrate New Year’s in the Big Easy, I had no idea that Travel & Leisure would rank New Orleans as the top NYE destination in the USA or that National Geographic would name it a must-see city for 2014. I guess I chose well.

Aside from the unusually cold weather and the periodic rain, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to ring in a new year. We began the night on the legendary Bourban Street where crowds filled the streets and party goers filled the second story galleries (balconies) dangling beads over our heads. The drunken masses proceeded to entertain us all night with their antics… doing pretty much anything and everything to get the cheap plastic beads that could be purchased for less than a dollar in the countless tourist shops. We were wearing multiple layers of beads ourselves, but I’ll leave you guessing if I earned my beads or not ;)

We took a break from the crowds to cram our way into a completely full night club with live singers performing Top 40 covers. The energy was enough to keep us inside despite the smoke and lack of personal space. Soon enough we were ready to grab a world-famous Hurricane and head to Jackson Square for the main event. When the rain settled in we dodged the weather by grabbing some beignets and coffee in a nearby cafe to wait for the fleur de lis drop at midnight. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Happy New Year! We were situated right along the banks of the Mississippi for a beautiful firework show right over our heads.

We made our way back to Bourban Street to get in some more people watching before we headed over to Frenchmen Street for some more awesome jazz from our favourite neighbourhood clubs. All in all, we had a great time and this will go down as a NYE to remember!

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The Great River Road

Today I got to scratch another one off the bucket list: Visit a plantation in Louisiana!

In fact, we got to see two of these beautiful properties that face the Mississippi River (or the great river road). We started off at the Laura Plantation, which is a Creole Plantation built in 1805. The Creole were the French speaking people who dominated the area until America took over the colony after the Louisiana purchase. The plantation’s colors show the Caribbean influence and the Creole’s desire to be different from the English-speaking American’s who foolishly built big white houses that were just going to turn green anyways. Our tour was fascinating and told the long history of the plantation’s presidents, who were mostly women, as well as the sad truth about slavery in the south. Not only did the house survive fire and Hurricane Katrina, but it was also kept well preserved over the years,  retaining its original cyprus wood and brick structure and even most of the furniture.

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Our second stop was to a much more traditional plantation called Oak Alley. It’s claim to fame is also it’s namesake, the breathtaking, 300 year old live oaks that line the path to the main house. We ended up skipping out on the house tour completely to spend more time photographing the trees and enjoying the beautiful sunshine. It was definitely a trip highlight and I could have easily stayed under those trees all day.

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What Happens in New Orleans… Get’s Celebrated!

So far New Orleans, or NOLA for short, is living up to my expectations. Even though our first full day was filled with monsoon like rains and flooded sidewalks, we still managed to thoroughly enjoy ourselves.

To start, our B&B Chez Palmiers, is absolutely perfect. We have the Loft Suite, which is spacious and includes a bar kitchen and ensuite as well as TV and WiFi. Our hosts Schuyler and David are so friendly and provided the most wonderful breakfast spread in the morning as well as a custom list of recommended restaurants, cafes and bars nearby. We are staying a couple blocks from the world famous French Quarter in a residential neighbourhood called Marigny. We love being able to walk everywhere.

This place is so unique. It’s hard to believe that we are even in the U.S. anymore. Some moments, like today on our New Orleans history walk, it feels like we’ve stepped back in time. And then mere seconds later we are being dazzled by hilarious locals like Billy the Hootenanny who won us over with his killer dance/hip thrusting. You had to be there but I promise, it made our day.

We are slowly but surely attempting to try the local cuisine. Today we tried muffeletas (sandwich) and Shrimp Creole, which were both successful. In New Orleans you are allowed to drink alcohol in the street so most places serve drinks in plastic to-go cups. Basically, the whole city is a bar. Did I mention that alcohol is really cheap here?

Most of our day was spent experiencing 19th century holidays in the New Orleans style on our walking tour of five historic houses. We were told the history of the owners and even got to see the home of the first princess of Monaco who happened to be from New Orleans. It was really interesting and gave us a better appreciation for the rich history of this city that has seen so much change over the centuries.

So far the people have been extremely friendly and we’ve had many interesting conversations. Most of the locals are amazed that we are here all the way from Canada. One of our tour guides advised us to have as much fun as possible and that what happens in New Orleans… Gets Celebrated! Well Sir – we plan to… in fact, I don’t think we have a choice. The party never stops in NOLA.

Tonight after dinner we were wandering down the streets of the French Quarter, looking in shops, and then decided to stop at a bar on Frenchmen Street called Cafe Negril. Frenchmen Street has been touted as the local’s Bourbon Street so we definitely wanted to check out the scene. The bar had no cover and a really great Blues Rock band. We enjoyed that for a while before spilling out into the street to find another band playing on the street corner with a large crowd dancing in the street, like actually in the street. Of course, we joined in. At one point the crowd had grown so big that the cars were having difficulty getting through. One car was clearly annoyed and ran over a lady’s toe (or so she said). She obviously got upset and somehow dented his car. While we stood there in shock watching the confrontation – no one else seemed to notice. Just business as usual on a Saturday night in New Orleans!

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The Happiest Place on Earth

What could possibly be better than visiting the happiest place on earth at the most wonderful time of the year?

After 15+ years since my last Disneyland adventure, I eagerly coerced my new SoCal resident, best friend into a day trip to remember!

Early on a mid-November morning we made the 75ish minute drive from San Diego to Anaheim. Upon arrival we quickly parked our car (FREE), stored our bags (FREE) and loaded up at the breakfast buffet (FREE) at our awesome hotel, the Residence Inn Anaheim Maingate, conveniently located just across the street from the park. We were off to a great start!

After the mandatory photo-stop at the entrance we quickly joined the throngs of people lining the sidelines of Main Street, U.S.A. for the filming of the Disneyland Christmas Parade special, which airs Christmas Day on ABC. It was great to see the park all decked out for the holidays, but the filming meant that the Parade was not running like normal. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Disney magic takes a lot of rehearsing, resetting, and rewinding. Instead of waiting around all day, we opted to take advantage of the minimal crowds and cross off a few of the big name attractions: Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, and the Haunted Mansion (with a spooktacular Nightmare Before Christmas dressing)!

For lunch we enjoyed a sit-down meal in New Orleans square – preparation for my upcoming trip to the Big Easy this December! The jambalaya was good, but I’m sure the real deal will taste even better.

The afternoon crowds were a bit bigger but we still managed to spot one of my childhood icons, Joey Fatone of N’Sync fame! A trip to California wouldn’t be complete without spotting at least one celebrity. We also managed to squeeze in a holiday cruise on the iconic it’s a small world ride, followed by the Storybook Canal ride where our tour operator sounded so robotic in her high-pitched Disney voice that I thought her head might explode. Kudos to all the ride operators at Disneyland for performing such a monotonous job while wearing those ridiculous fun costumes in the hot sun every day.

We capped off the day with the Matterhorn (my first time in 3 visits!) and my personal favourite Space Mountain. By 4:00pm we were ready for some adult time at the bar in Downtown Disney – something I certainly couldn’t have enjoyed 15 years ago. All in all it was an enjoyable day if not slightly less magical as an adult. The rides seemed less impressive while the attention to detail surpassed my previous recollection. November truly is a great time to visit – the weather was perfect and the crowds, totally manageable. I wish I could say that I’m dying to go back, but I think this travelista has come to appreciate a more mature way of travel. And, I hope this evolution takes me to some far off corner of the globe in the very near future.

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