Two drifters…

March 10, 2015

54. Northern Spain, Feb. 2015

Filed under: Europe — Andy @ 10:47 pm
Tags: , , , ,
Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Pictures: here

It’s been quite some time since I wrote my last blog and there’s a gap currently awaiting completion for our trips to Greece and Bulgaria last year.

However, we have recently come back from a 3 week reccie mission to northern Spain with the intention of finding an area we like to return to to teach there.

We spent about a week in each of the three major cities in north east Spain:


It rains a lot!

It rains a lot!

This seemed a reasonable place to start: cheapish flights from Stansted, I already knew one or two Spanish students from the area (who, unsurprisingly, told me it was a wonderful city!) and no problem finding a bank! We were quite surprised, however, to find that when we landed the area was in the grip of one of the worst winters on record. We had horizontal, biting sleet and the news reports showed cars stranded in the snow in the hills nearby. ‘We could have got this by staying at home’ we thought! It soon became apparent that everyone in this area carries an umbrella and when I next hear a foreign student stereotype the UK with phrases such as: “Yeah… the UK… it’s always raining, isn’t it?” I’ll direct them here with the message: “Well, you should visit this place”.

Having said that, we really enjoyed the city. It’s not particularly touristy and we found a splendid and cheap place to stay, the Estudios Aránzazu just off the main drag. All the bars in this area were really friendly and gave free tapas (‘pinchos’) with every drink. On the cold days, the bars supplied punters with a free cup of some kind of meaty broth which Helen said was rather nice.

One interesting idiosyncrasy of the area is the penchant for Vermouth. Every bar has bottles of the stuff, the full range. You probably thought there was Martini and that’s it. How wrong you are! We tried several varieties if only to see the ritual with which this drink is poured. Pieces of orange peel are ritualistically dabbed over the rim of the glass in a flamboyant manner by the server that reminds one of a strutting flamenco dancer. Ice and vermouth are then added followed by an olive and a cherry. Bizarrely, for this rain-soaked region, there is no decorative umbrella to finish off the ensemble! And, as with all drinks that you buy in situ, it tastes so much better than it ever did in Blighty! You’re probably aware of the useful way in which the Spanish language attaches the suffix ‘eria’ to the end of many words to indicate that this place is a purveyor of said objects. Places that sell churros (sweet, fried dough sticks that you dunk in hot chocolate) are called ‘Churrerias’. Well, yes, you guessed it, places that specialise in this tipple are called ‘Vermooterias’!

Food wise, the ubiquitous tortilla is everywhere and slices are usually available on bars. There is also a local sweet cake called Quesada Paisaje which was like a large egg custard – yummy!


Travelators on the steep paths

One other thing that struck me about Santander was its cleanliness. The place is immaculate: the pavements spotless, the beaches pristine – it could certainly give Austria a run for its money!

An interesting touch here (and in Bilbao) is the street travelator. The moving walkways that you sometimes see in airports are installed on some street pavements where there is a steep hill. What an excellent idea?!

A lovely walk around the periphery of the city rewarded us with a black redstart and a gorgeous little goldcrest. What could be better?


Two hours’ bus journey from Santander and we arrive in Bilbao. This city is somewhat dominated by the magnificent Guggenheim Museum. When you come in along the river, the first view of this imposing edifice takes your breath away – it’s unlike any building you’ve probably seen before.

Helen in the Guggenheim

Helen in the Guggenheim

Thousands of titanium panels adorn the exterior and merge with the limestone blocks and glass to create a shape that defies description. I don’t usually go all gooey about buildings but… The inside is a bit of a disappointment but then, we don’t get excited about museums. Still, it keeps you out of the rain!

Public transport is incredibly cheap and easy – we bought a single ‘Barik tarjeta’ card and put 50 Euros on it. It lasted us the week and we used it on trams, metro, buses and even had two days out on the local railway to the countryside to do some birding.

The Basque language (‘Euskara’) is more prominent here: although Castilian Spanish is the chief spoken language, most signs have Euskara first and the kids use it as the first language in the local schools. Sadly, this is likely to put us off returning to this area to teach: we’re desperately trying to improve our Spanish and the complication of an additional language just confuses us old farts!

Oscar and Maite, Bilbao, Feb. 2015

Oscar and Maite, in Bilbao, in a pub!

We met two of my old students from Leeds, Maite and Oscar, who were excellent tour guides for our first day in Bilbao. We were acquainted with many bars and witnessed yet another local ritual, the pouring of the region’s white wine, ‘Txakoli’ (pron.: ‘chakoli’) which is always done from the bottle into a glass but from a height – as far as the arms can stretch apart. Helen got excited when our hosts said we were going to try some txakoli as she thought she was going to get some hot chocolate!

Many years ago I read about the Spanish Civil War and the horrific bombing of the town of Guernica in 1937, and had always wanted to visit the place. At the behest of Franco and the Nationalist forces, the Nazi Luftwaffe was called in to carpet bomb the town during market day to bring it to its knees. It was seen as a gateway to Bilbao and the submission of the republican forces who had a stronghold in the area. The moment was commemorated by Picasso in a now famous painting in Madrid and a mural of the same is found in the town. It’s a stirring reminder of the stupidity of war. Our Barik tickets allowed us to get there and we could walk on to a rather delightful nature reserve with its resident celebrity stork.


Another couple of hours away on the bus and we arrive in San Sebastian with its picture-postcard ‘La concha’ bay and quaint old town. It’s more touristy here and consequently the pintxos are no longer free! It’s a lovely place but rather more expensive than where we’ve been. With its sister town of Biarritz just over the French border, this has become something of a trendy area for the wealthier classes; I’m still smarting over the 5 quid I paid for a pint of lager in Biarritz 20 years ago.

Readers of my previous blogs may remember one day when we visited Siracusa in Sicily and got 3 enormous Glen Grant malts and a bottle of water for 5 Euros. Well, in San Seb, we bought two normal size Glen Grants and paid 14 Euros for the pleasure. Bargain!

We walked along the seafront to the place where the sea meets the river in a maelstrom of conflicting forces. In an unusual moment of Schadenfreude I decided I wanted to get a shot of that big wave that crashes against the promenade wall drenching all those poor saps who happen to be standing there at the time. I never stood a chance. The big wave came and targeted exactly where we were standing. We couldn’t have got any wetter if we’d jumped into the sea. We sloshed back through the town to our hotel pretending to be oblivious to the strange looks and remarks we were getting. Never have I been gladder of that spare pair of strides.

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

Despite these gripes, the place is very pleasant. Our second day there, the weather was glorious and we went up the overlooking mountain on the funicular railway and spent a few hours on a bench, shirt-sleeved, peering over the stunning, bejewelled bay sprawling below us.

A delightful tradition in this town can be found every Sunday morning when a group of singers gather in the old town and perform, a capella, a repertoire of Euskara folk songs. Moving from street to street they attract a retinue of like-minded individuals, singing their hearts out. It was extraordinarily moving.

So, it’s back to Santander for an evening for some free pinchos and vermouth before our flight back to Blighty.

Yes, it was peeing it down all day!


March 2015

July 22, 2013

51. Sicily Wrap

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 10:57 pm

I, like the rest of the world, am on tenterhooks. What could be more exciting than waiting for the arrival of the Royal Baby. Here in Italy, people are ‘aghasto’, column inches set aside for pictures of il Royal Bambino, etc. It’s quite odd: we left Blighty on the morning of the Royal Vomit and we’ll be returning unnoticed as the UK’s attention is distracted by some similarly less-worthy event – the Royal Plop.

There is an upside: that world-famous sex-tourist, Herr Pope, will see his visit to the slums of Rio go largely unnoticed too.

Yes, we spent the last 7 months on the island of Sicily and it’s time to move off again. We’re in a town called Tivoli at the moment, on the outskirts of Rome, readying ourselves for a return to decent ale, Asda, fish ‘n’ chips, cheap analgesics and responsible driving. OK, I know, you’ve just driven half a mile and met every incompetent driver in the world who could all take advantage of learning a thing or two from your impeccable road skills but, trust me, it’s nothing compared to the utter stupidity, ignorance and arrogance of the drivers here. The driving test is quite tough, according to my students, but who bothers to take it when you can slip the examiner a few Euros…?

Amazing tree, Malfitano

Amazing tree, Malfitano

However, there are some plus points. Here’s our wrap up of the idiosyncrasies and pros and cons:


  • Amazing trees
  • Fantastic scenery on the island as you travel across the mountains.
  • The most amazing road engineering, from Palermo to Messina, dozens of tunnels and heart-stopping viaducts. Beautiful hills and perilously-perched hilltop towns.
  • Almost continual sound of emergency vehicles in Palermo (and Naples)
  • Some delightful students – offset by the predictable teenager group, containing the least-interesting people in the world with unwarranted angst (a title previously held by my teenager group in Vietnam).
  • Guys driving with left arm dangling from the open window, I mean, how macho is that?!
  • Motorbikes
  • Passagiata – the curious habit of emerging from your afternoon stupor to parade down the high street in your finery, stopping to exchange perfunctory tittle-tattle with the dudes you saw yesterday.
  • Dog crap. On the way to the school, I used to sing that old Eddie Grant classic: ‘I’m gonna slide down through, Dogshit Avenue, and it can’t get much higher’. A real Palermo problem.P1040008
  • Dinky men, gathered around central town areas, always reminds me of Munchkin Conventions. Unsurprisingly, ‘Small Man Syndrome’ is the country’s biggest health-hazard.
  • Small supermarkets
  • Savoca – scene of the Godfather, Part 1


  • Gelaterias. Pasticcerias. These places are so popular it is quite normal to find yourself unable to eat anything other than cakes and ice cream at tea time. Restaurants close when we Brits are the hungriest (6 – 7 pm), leaving one with no choice other than to get fatter.
  • The sfinciona man, shouting from his tuk-tuk every morning, selling this local foodstuff (a pizza-like bread cake).
  • Great pizzas (but also some of the worst in the world – tourist rip-off mode)
  • The students’ hilarious confusion with the words ’kitchen’ and ‘chicken’. ‘Yeah, we spend a lot of time in our large, modern chicken…’ etc.
  • Espresso coffees – what is the point of these?!
  • Delicious, filling cannoli. Gorgeous tomatoes. The ubiquitous aubergine – the ultimate definition of disappointment. Pistacchio (pronounced ‘pistakio’) and capers. 1 metre-long zucchinis.
  • POTATOES! Yes, we thought that Italy was all about spaghetti and tiramisu but, no… the preferred antipasto of our students was invariably the potato-based pot pourri of chips, croquets, panelli (small, fried potato cakes) and cheese balls – a thoroughly British booze-soaker.
  • Breakfast – no eggs! Lots of cakes and pastries – why aren’t the Italians huge gutbuckets? (Actually, looking at some of the kids, things are heading that way. ‘Blobbo Bambino’ is on the rise.
  • Nutella, in everything. Aisles full of the stuff in supermarkets.
  • Our curries at our parties – phenomenally successful with our students!
Sassi, Matera

Sassi, Matera

Since, we left Sicily we’ve visited a couple of really interesting places:


Situated in the foot arch of the boot, this is an extraordinary place. Two valleys bisect the town full of old stone houses (‘sassi’) where the locals used to live. Nowadays, they are trendier places to live but the areas are home to the largest collection of kestrels you’re ever likely to see. We counted over a hundred.

Villa Adriana, Tivoli

Villa Adriana, Tivoli


An amazing Greek ruin – home to the emporer Hadrian – the ‘Wall’ guy. He had a huge villa here. Apparently, he was quite depressed – what a wuss!


Tivoli, 22.7.13

Kestrel, Matera

Lesser Kestrel, Matera

May 19, 2013

50. More from Sicily

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 8:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Palermo Update


Thousands of swifts are screaming in the skies and it’s been shirt-sleeve weather for about a month now – this time of year is just about right for us. It’s still hot for us in the classrooms and, as in Turkey, Libya and Vietnam, we teachers from the UK and USA play the ‘Air-Con Shuffle’: we turn on the AirCon and hide the remote. The students come in, start shivering and insist on turning the thing off. After a while, we sneak it back on again. This toing and froing goes on for the whole 90 minutes. I know this experience resonates with many of our TEFLing friends around the globe – it’s so much fun!

Helen, our apartment stable doors and the 3 kilos of Trapani salt we bought for 1 Euro

Helen, our apartment stable doors and the 3 kilos of Trapani salt we bought for 1 Euro

Some more observations here in Palermo. As I’m approaching that age where pensions become important, I’ve recently had to communicate with financial institutions in the UK not yet geared to 21st century technology. One such company, Dickens and Dinosaur Insurance, insist on written communication. This requires a visit to the post office here in Palermo, something that Helen has always enjoyed, being a prolific letter-writer, but fills me with dread. Our local post office is always heaving; some people must spend their lives in there. Some people start queueing for their pensions well before they reach pensionable age! You first have to enter through a double-door screening capsule, reminiscent of MI5 buildings (did you see Spooks on UK TV?) and join the overbooked, Alzheimer’s Convention inside. Then you collect your ticket and calculate the approximate wait you’ll have. It’s customary at this point to leave and do your weekly shopping, visit a show, etc. I did this last week, returned to the post office only to find the number had not yet progressed half way so I took my shopping home. I returned to the post office to find that my number plus one was being served so I muttered an expletive and gave up. One of the pleasures of living in a foreign country is being able to shout ‘Oh For F***’s Sake’ at the top of your voice and people around you assume you’re sneezing.

We’ll be lucky to escape with our lives in tact in July: the driving seems to be getting worse. My students tell me that if you can drive in Palermo, you can drive anywhere. Actually, I remind them that these drivers would not be allowed to drive in the UK as I have yet to see anyone remotely capable of passing a UK driving test. The hot weather has also sparked a ‘who’s-got-the-loudest-car-stereo’ contest which can almost blow in the windows of our classrooms rendering pronunciation practice somewhat futile. Our friend Damian told me recently that he saw the ultimate: a guy on a pushbike with the biggest pair of speakers and battery he’d ever seen, strapped to the sides. What a clod!

Helen’s quite chuffed with herself. As usual, her application to learning the local lingo leaves me shamefully lagging behind and relying on the standard British approach to Johnny Foreigner: shouting louder and giving up if the stupid shop assistant, etc., is too dumb to understand simple English. She managed to direct someone from the city to the motorway, something she would have difficulty doing in Leeds! Anyway, she was rightly proud of herself.

We both have teaching assignments outside our school: Helen has just finished a session teaching kiddies once a week at a convent; getting up on Friday mornings for this hour-long, ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ screaming session used to really cheer her up!
I have a 2.5-hour session with a group of teachers in a town called Partinico, about an hour’s drive out of Palermo. According to my boss, these country yokels should first be learning Italian, rather than English! The Italian government has recently passed a law, requiring all state school teachers to achieve at least CEF Level B1 in the next 2 years. For the uninitiated in language-learning jargon, this equates to a pretty good level of competence, rather more than ‘2 beers please’ – the level I usually aim for. In Poland, before I could say the word for ‘three’, I had to say: ‘Two beers please, and one more beer please.’ Yes, it’s cumbersome, but it works!

We’ve almost covered the whole island now and here are a few of the highlights:

The grandkids, Selinunte

The grandkids, Selinunte

Segesta and Selinunte


These are two of the most well-known archaeological sites in Sicily – full of the relics of the halcyon days of Greek hegemony. We visited Selinunte with Alan, Emily and the grandkids – see the picture of James and the severe regulations imposed upon entering. It was strictly forbidden to make any noise at all. We found this injunction impossible to follow and were eventually evicted from the site after Helen sneezed.
We were fortunate to visit Segesta on our way back to Palermo and found the place in full bloom of spring wild flowers. It was extraordinarily spectacular and ranks as Helen’s number one place.



Breat- taking views, Savoca

Breath-taking views, Savoca

This is my favourite place, so far. We took off for a long weekend to the tourist trap of Taormina on the east coast and spent a day in the nearby town of Savoca. Godfather aficionados will recognise this place: the Sicily scenes from the first film were shot here. The rustic, simple life is enjoyed by Al Pacino as he falls in love and marries the lovely Apollonia. Although the viewer is lead to believe this is in the village of Corleone, it was actually filmed in Savoca. Some of that rustic simplicity has now disappeared but the town is a delight nonetheless. High up in the hills through winding hairpins it has the winning blend of narrow cobbled streets, breath-taking views and quaint bars. It even rewarded us with a pair of ravens and a blue rock thrush. Who could ask for more?!

Siracusa (Syracuse)


Last weekend we visited here in the company of two of our colleagues, Charles and Damian. Here was where much of Sicilian history started and is famous for its Greek ruins and as the birthplace of Archimedes. We visited our local café when we arrived for the traditional slug of whisky. We repeated this before we left and were pleasantly surprised at the ‘we-don’t-rip-off-the-tourists-here’ attitude: 3 enormous malts (each about the measure of a large wine!) and a large bottle of water, less than €5. If we ever come back to Sicily, we’ll be living in the sticks; all the towns and cities we’ve visited have knocked Palermo into a cocked hat.

Anyway, we spent a day in Cava Grande, an Italian Grand Canyon. It was a long way down so we let the youngsters go down quickly, we didn’t want to upset them with our speed and dexterity. We almost made it to the bottom, we had timed it to get back in two hours (the guidebook – 1 hour, for some super-fit git). We passed some splendid conversations, one Helen overheard: “I’ll never walk up here again in a thousand years!”. It might give you some idea of the stupidity of the mission. Anyway, we had a bird-spotting dream, getting Zitt Cis, Black Redstart, Raven, Grey Wag., Icky and Sardi Warbler, Stonechat, Green and Goldfinches, Jays and Housemartins. We ended up with a 30+ bird list – splendid.

Today, in Palermo near the touristy market area, we stopped off for a beer and an ice cream. The bill? €13! (Yes, that’s one beer for me and an ice cream for Helen). It’s outrageous! So we left and proceeded to a back street Sri Lankan shop, bought a litre of vodka, large carton of orange juice, two bags of Bombay Mix and a can of super strength beer for €12. Job done!

Mind you, this is what the TEFL business is usually about; in Charles’s words, you have to teach in the butthole and get away to the sights at the weekends. Delicately and so accurately put.

Palermo, 19.5.13

March 16, 2013

49. Sicilian Travels

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 8:02 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,


Palermo and surrounds


Time for a quick update. It seems like ages since I last wrote; we’ve been quite busy working which still tends to get in the way of one’s lives. We have full timetables in a well-organised school (extraordinary, in our experience!) and the staff and teachers here are all decent and splendid individuals. I’m fortunate to have classes with mostly adults but Helen does seem to have a lot of baby-sitting duties to perform! We still plan to stay here until July when we’ll return to the UK for my 30th birthday bash in Leeds – currently scheduled for Saturday the 27th – we’d love to see you there.

We have found the time to get away from canis turdus ubiquitarius for a few weekends and explore this stunningly beautiful island. The train line from Palermo to the east runs continually along the breath-taking coastline and the line to the south goes through fantastic mountainous scenery. The island is not too big and you can get from one side to the other in about three hours, or so.

Passeggiatta on Ruggero Settimo, P

Passeggiatta on Ruggero Settimo, Palermo.

A peculiar practice among Sicilianos (and southern Italians) is the early evening Passeggiata. Thousands of locals dress up and simply wander up and down the main streets, stopping to talk to other groups on their way. In Palermo, the central Via Ruggero Settimo is made into a pedestrian area for a few hours every evening for this very purpose and is chocker with folk.

The young guys here mostly sport the trendy, designer-stubble look which I have also perfected but without the ‘trendy’ and ‘designer’ aspects. Many of the women seem to be having a ‘bad hair day’.

Of course, the Italians have been busy in the last few weeks choosing a new government and pope and managing only one. The political scene is mired in more than the normal imbroglio as even the usual coalition system seems to be unworkable. Another election is likely.

The traffic continues to annoy although we are getting more comfortable with crossing the road defying oncoming vehicles, partially controlled by the fag- and phone-toting ‘driver’. It is common for cars to be parked two abreast, on zebra crossings and in various states of disarray and, despite there being many tiers of police present, never seem to attract any attention from the aforementioned.


Inside the Vila Malfitano

Near where we live is the marvellous Villa Malfitano. This old mansion was built by Joseph Whitaker in 1886. Whitaker was a member of an entrepreneurial English family which had a big influence on Sicily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after making a fortune exporting Marsala wine to all parts of the world. The son of one of our fellow teachers is doing research here and has already uncovered some fascinating archaeological findings which threaten to rewrite the history books.

Serins abound and last weekend we heard our first chiffchaff; we can’t wait for the spring migration season as we should get some belting passage sightings. (Sorry, that last sentence was probably quite meaningless to my normal readers!)



On the outskirts of Palermo’s north is the summer haven of Mondello – a kind of local Blackpool. It was crowded in February so god knows what this place will be like when the spring arrives. We probably won’t be going back!



Situated on the eastern coast, at the foot of Mount Etna, this town is full of character. It was totally wiped out in 1669 when Etna erupted and swamped the town in lava. Many Sicilianos don’t like Catania and think it is too dark and depressing. This is because the city was rebuilt using the volcanic rock which covered it. We liked it. We had the best value 5 Euro tourist bus trip ever and had an outside dinner late in the evening – there’s a real café society feeling about the place in complete contrast to the utilitarian capital.

A local speciality is the smoked artichoke: we came across a very popular street stall on the Sunday morning where half the population of Catania seem to have gathered to purchase this item.

We learnt the following day that there had indeed been rumblings from the famous mountain – clearly it hadn’t realised we were there and a full eruption was avoided.



The Straits of Messina separate Sicily from the mainland and, at its nearest, is only about 5 kilometres wide. Successive governments have toyed with the thought of building a bridge across but this has always been shelved. This is largely because the straits lies on top of one of the world’s liveliest tectonic cracks which caused Europe’s biggest ever earthquake in 1908. We decided, therefore, not to

Messina duomo at night

Messina duomo at night

visit this place on the weekend at the end of February – being the anniversary of both our Libyan evacuation and Chilean earthquake – too risky!

Messina is not the prettiest place on earth but it does have a beautiful cathedral with a bizarre tower and astronomical clock (reminiscent of Prague’s Staroměstské náměstí). Every midday, the clock tower comes to life and people gather round to see the spectacle of the roaring lion and strutting cockerel for a fifteen minute hoot! Also, the city has a tram!  Sadly, it is probably the worst tram in the world: most of the seats are so badly-designed it’s virtually impossible to sit on them with a normal-sized butt and the tracks appear to have been engineered to some white-knuckle, fairground-ride standard – throwing the passengers from side to side with neck-breaking alacrity.



Across the island on the south side lies this historic town, home to some of Europe’s best-kept Greek temple ruins. Having seen many ruins before in our lives we decided not to bother going round these and spent a day in the nearby coastal resort of San Leone which was virtually deserted at this time of year.


An hour’s train journey east from Palermo you arrive at the delightful tourist trap of Cefalù. Sadly, we had forgotten to bring the camera so there’s no piccies but the sea-front has a wonderful path hewn out of the rocks and you walk along under hotels and restaurants, dodging the waves and the rock pools. It’s really quite exciting!

Castellammare del Golfo

Dodgy dude in Castellammare

Dodgy dude in Castellammare


We had our first visitor at the beginning of February: Matthew (the son of our good friends Bob and Jan) came from frozen Blighty to soak up the Sicilian sun and ended up simply getting soaked. The weather was atrocious but this didn’t dampen our spirits. We got a car for the weekend and having miraculously got out of Palermo with our lives intact, we made our way over to Castellammare, a picturesque harbour town west of Palermo. I’ve just finished reading a book about the history of the Cosa Nostra and this place was the birthplace of one of the influential godfathers and many a plot was hatched from here. Helen wandered off alone for 10 minutes on the Sunday morning and she managed to get befriended by a shifty-looking, local raconteur who tried to interest us in his detached-horse-head business.

Just up the road from here is the Zingaro national park – famous (as I’m sure you’re aware) for Bonelli’s Eagle. We arrived at 3.45 to find that the place closed at 4, so we got in free provided we didn’t stray more than 7.5 minutes into the park. We plan to return here later when I’m sure we’ll miss the damn bird again – our track record on eagle spotting is not impressive!

OK, enough for now. It’s Saturday and it’s been wazzing it down all day – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be here, you know!


Palermo, 16.3.13

January 17, 2013

48. Palermo

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 3:27 pm

P1020147Picture album:

Time for a quick update.

Our street, Via Whitaker

Our street, Via Whitaker

We’ve managed to get ourselves employed again in a school called British Institutes in Palermo on a 6-month contract: time enough to ensure we’re back in Blighty for my big birthday bash at the end of July; please start marking your calendars and diaries now. We’re into our second week and have a few classes already. We’ve moved into a flat in a typical Italian-sounding street called Via Whitaker: this guy was a British entrepreneur of the 19th century who made a fortune peddling the local tipple, Marsala wine, around the world.

It’s actually quite cold at the moment, we’re almost in single figures Celsius and it’s raining all day! Our flat has very little in the way of heating and we can’t have more than two electrical devices on at the same time as the fuse blows. Still, I’m sure we won’t be moaning about the cold when the summer comes.

Palermo itself is not the most beautiful city in the world. It suffers excessively from the usual piles of crud and excrement on the paths as many cities and there is an over-abundance of vehicles clogging the streets. Indeed, it is often difficult to walk either on the path or get off it to cross the road: cars are parked so tightly. In British English, the protrusions at the front and back of cars are called ‘bumpers’ (‘fenders’ in the US, which are the classic, Hendrix-type guitars to us Brits!) and are perfectly named here. In order to get in or out of a parking space, you must nudge the cars on either side of you. Consequently, all cars have knackered bumpers.

Driving here is, unsurprisingly, a nightmare. We hired a car for two weeks to go down south (see Pozzallo below) and were shocked when we had to drive back into Palermo. It’s almost as though you are invisible – cars simply come out of side streets directly in front of you, or AT you. I thought it was just me but I was relieved to see in my rear-view mirror a motorcyclist being smacked by a car and delivered fuming with his mangled bike into the crud and canine turdage strewn on the sidewalk.

The Teatro Massimo

The Teatro Massimo

There are some interesting sights here. You’ll remember the final scene in The Godfather Trilogy where Al Pacino attends the performance of Cavalleria Rusticana only to have his beloved daughter gunned down on the steps of the theatre. This was filmed at the Teatro Massimo in the centre of the city.

The city is surrounded by some impressive mountains so we hope to get up one of them this weekend. Birding in the city is limited to, yes you’ve guessed it, the feral pigeon!

Fantastic oranges and pizzas (who would’ve thought?). Cheap wine. Rose-ringed parakeets in the botanical gardens. Who could ask for more?


Over the Xmas and New Year period we took off to the south eastern part of the island and spent a couple of weeks in a small town called Pozzallo. We chose this area because the surrounding area looked promising for national parks, and it proved to be a very good spot. There’s a fantastic reserve called Vendicari nearby where we spent much of the time and largely had the place to ourselves.

Flamingos at Vendicari

Flamingos at Vendicari

It is chocker with flamingos, spoonbills and herons and a delightful place to walk around. You can even see Mount Etna, rising menacingly in the distance.

The roads around this part of the island have some stunning views with baroque towns perched on hillsides and breath-taking viaducts spanning valleys with villages dotted beneath you. The drive from Palermo across the island takes you for most part on stilts – really quite weird. We got lost as we drove into the clouds and visibility was reduced to a few yards; the road-signage here is not exactly up to UK standards!

Pozzallo and Vendicari pictures:

Vendicari and surrounds birding photos:



17.01.13, Palermo, Sicily.

December 11, 2012

47. Naples

Filed under: Italy — Andy @ 9:32 pm

Looking over Naples from Concezione Monte Calvario

Looking over Naples from Concezione Monte Calvario

Picture album:

After a pleasant stay in the UK for three weeks or so, we decided to head off once again for warmer climes. As we were driving to the airport last Tuesday morning it became apparent that we’d just made it in time – all the news concentrating on Kate and the Royal Vomit.

We didn’t get the Egypt jobs (gutted!) and we’d always fancied living and working in Italy so here we are.

Naples was our first stop en-route to Sicily – well, the Parkin curse factor should ensure that either the Mafia or a volcano gets us; more fodder for a good blog.

Ubiquitous brolly sellers

Ubiquitous brolly sellers

It rains a lot down here: everywhere you go there are either brolly sellers or discarded brollies in amongst all the other crap that is strewn over the streets and pavements. Dog-dump dodging is part of the everyday stroll technique – not that many people do stroll, there being the overabundance of cars and motorbikes. It’s not as scary as Vietnam in that respect, though Helen begs to differ!

Some things about the place: almost constant sound of emergency vehicle sirens in the streets (these were very unusual in Vietnam); cheap and easy transport; friendly hotel/shop/restaurant people; great pizzas (well, they would be, wouldn’t they?); Pinot Grigio in the shops for €3 (I didn’t know that the Italian ‘grigio’ means ‘grey’), and the local red wine for €1.50; mad traffic but, bizarrely, they obey zebra crossings!

General air of seediness: there are some very dodgy characters hanging around street corners, we saw soup kitchens and the streets never seem to get cleaned. There are lots of illegal street sellers (mostly Africans) with bags and other leather goods playing a ‘catch me’ game with the police: when the fuzz turns up, they bundle up their goods in a sheet and walk around like suspicious-looking, jolly swagmen.

Berlusconi has joined the figures of fun for the crib creators

Berlusconi has joined the figures of fun for the crib creators

At this time of year the local tradition of making cribs (‘Presepi’) is in full flow. The cribs and a huge variety of miscellaneous figures and objects are sold in the old town. The locals buy additional bits and pieces every year and build miniature towns and Christmas scenes in their homes, often forcing the occupants out onto the streets.


Pompei pictures:

A half-hour’s train journey from Naples takes you to Pompei under the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius. Those of us old enough will remember that fateful day in AD79 when it erupted and covered the whole town in a couple of feet of ash. The townsfolk dusted themselves off, coughed and breathed a sigh of relief only to be confronted 10 minutes later by the deadly pyroclastic flow travelling at 80 kph which killed every living thing except, of course, the feral pigeon.

Looks nice now

Looks nice now

What you may not know is that, although the old town has been preserved as it was after the catastrophe, a new town has sprung up alongside and you can get the train to the new place or directly to the ruins. We, naturally, alighted at the new place by mistake and had to walk across town to the famous place. As we were walking a helpful, old guy came up to us and asked: “Ruins?” to which I had to reply: “Well, we’re not as old you, cheeky bugger!

Surprisingly, there were a few visitors who didn’t have cameras – a Korean nightmare! Thankfully, later we saw many Korean visitors with camera apparatus overload.

Pompei is well worth a visit and, for my money, knocks the other old Roman sites into a cocked hat. We’ve just about got the full set of these places: Pompei, Troy, Carthage, Leptis Magna & Sabratha so we can stop there. One interesting point of note: in all these sites one finds Black Redstarts in abundance – what’s that all about?

Fondo and Sperlonga

An hour and a half on the Rome-bound train (bargain price of €6) and we’re in the Lazio region. We visited the brother of a good friend of ours and his Italian girlfriend – both English teachers. OK, so it was a bit of a busman’s holiday but we were treated to traditional local food of pasta, tomatoes, fruit, ratatouille and peppers, mozzarella and parmesan etc. Cliff reminded us of the big story back home in Blighty – apparently all the Italian media are talking about is ‘Il Royal Baby‘.

The posh coastal resort of Sperlonga was almost deserted at this time of year and all the better for it.

We booked ourselves on to the Saturday night ferry but it was cancelled at the last moment due to rough seas so we had to walk around the town looking for another hotel – most were fully-booked. It’s times like this, dragging cases, when the romantic notion of cobbled streets is somewhat less appreciated. We managed to sail on Sunday’s overnight crossing.

We’re in Sicily now and looking for jobs here, however, today I had a phone interview with the British Council for jobs back in Tripoli, Libya. Helen had her interview yesterday; we won’t know the result until next week so, who knows what next? According to our interviewer, Tripoli has fewer entertainment options these days than when we were last there. It sounds like a real riot!

Wait… what’s that rumbling sound?


11.12.12, Palermo, Sicily.

Pictures from UK in last two months:

November 10, 2012

46. Vietnam Wrap – we’re moving on

Filed under: Vietnam — Andy @ 6:27 pm

Picture album:

View from Lang Biang, Da Lat

After Da Lat we moved to Mui Ne on the coast (delightful road journey, over the hills) and now we’re back in the bustle and madness that’s HCMC. Last night we went back to the first boozer we came to 3 months ago on Bui Vien, the backpackers’ street to sink a few Saigon Reds and reminisce.

Quite nice sunset at our hotel

Mui Ne is a holiday resort that goes on for miles. It has a lovely sea front, famous sand dunes, lots of marijuana and loads of restaurants and hotels. A large section of the place has its signs in Cyrillic for the enormous influx of Russians who come here, many of whom are setting up businesses and upsetting the locals. On our last day there we took two ‘Xe oms’, motorbike taxis, 15 kilometres to the amazing market in the nearby city of Phan Thiet. On the way back to the hotel, they took a different route and I thought the Parkin curse factor had kicked in again and we were going to be turned over in some remote region and relieved of our final salaries. I was preparing myself: I was sure I could overpower my guy but Helen’s rider looked like a Mexican drug baron and would have taken all my cunning and martial art skills to get the better of him. It turned out they were only showing us a fantastic sight of the resort from high ground. How bizarre! We weren’t taken to the cleaners!

Before we left, we got chatting to two Vietnamese American tourists who were kind enough to fill us in on their recent, two-week trip to Europe (‘It’s Tuesday so it must be Rome’!) When we said we were from England, she responded: ‘Oh yeah, that place with the river and the bridge with towers, I remember’. She had London confused with England. So I said: ‘Oh, you’re from California, do you know Bud from Los Angeles?’

Our original plan of moving on to Cambodia has been superseded; we had gruelling, hour-long interviews with the British Council a couple of days ago and may get positions with them in Egypt – we won’t know for another week or so. Our return flights to UK are this Sunday so, instead of paying a fortune to change them, we decided to use them to return. If we don’t get the Egypt jobs (quite likely as we didn’t use enough vacuous buzz-phrases and meaningless jargon in the interviews) we’ll go somewhere else from Blighty.

Almost everyone we spoke to raved about Vietnam and we were hooked after seeing the Top Gear TV special. This is often a recipe for disappointment: it’ll never live up to the hype. The jury’s out on Vietnam for me but Helen enjoyed it so we’ll probably come back some day, maybe when we’re retired and can afford to do some voluntary work. So, we had a final meal at our boss’s restaurant (he kept that quiet!) and left.

Our last night at the boss’s restaurant (at least he paid!)

Here are my last impressions of this country:

The people: generally very pleasant, and happy, particularly those involved in the service industries (compare with my last blog from Russia).


For the first time in my teaching career I came across students who simply refused to do things. I was shocked when a student said: ‘No, I won’t’ when I asked him to read something. This happened more than once. After speaking to our colleague Jolanda, whose husband has a business here and employs locals, I discovered this is not an isolated trait. Occasionally, his employees say ‘No’ when he asks them to do something. Weird!

Something that I feel compelled to comment on (perhaps I’ll expand on my GOB blog) is the clear disparity in fairness in lives here, compared to the ‘Western World’. So many young people we’ve met in this country are highly educated, articulate and hard-working and yet, receive so little reward for their efforts. But, don’t get me started on that one.

The language: I simply could not bring myself to learning the language beyond the essentials. The women, boy, do they shriek! But phrases like ‘Rong dong’ are always guaranteed to make you laugh.  In our Lonely Planet phrasebook, a useful phrase for me was ‘I’m a vegetarian’, phonetically translated as ‘Doy un jay’. This never worked; it turns out that the correct pronunciation of the last word is ‘chai’ (rhyming with ‘lie’) and I was simply announcing to the waiter that I was a jerk, information seldom useful when ordering a meal.

General: we didn’t see any real poverty. The real smart places are the pagodas and churches: this is where the money is. If you see ‘Hot toc’ signs this means hairdresser. I had a haircut in Da lat and this is always fun in a foreign country. I was initially concerned, waiting for my turn, seeing the punters in front having extensive ear-penetration work. I don’t know about you, but I go to the hairdressers to get my hair cut. I politely declined this option, having learned from my experience in Istanbul when I got the ‘flaming cotton bud’ treatment; it scared the crap out of me.

Karaoke bars and massages are everywhere.

Tipping is not expected.

One last thing: if you like sitting at an outside table at a restaurant, make a huge sign (preferably in Vietnamese) with the words ‘I don’t want to buy anything’ emblazoned on it unless, of course, you often get the urge to buy that painting, postcard, pair of sunglasses, tat, etc. when you eat.


10.11.12, Saigon, Vietnam.

More pictures of Dalat, school, etc.:

November 2, 2012

45. Da Lat wrap – it’s time to go

Filed under: Vietnam — Andy @ 6:08 am

Sadly, I can’t embed any of my own photos in this blog as the internet service here in Da Lat is somewhat unpredictable. I’m already having to use a proxy to access the website and I’m having to bounce this post off a server in Kazakhstan, and let me tell you, she isn’t too happy about it!

Picture album:


This is our last week in Da Lat; we’re off to Mui Ne on the coast for a few days to plan our next move. As usual, we have a few irons in the fire – we were originally going to Cambodia but we may land a job back with the British Council in Egypt which would change things a tad.

Anyway, here’s our wrap-up with Da Lat.

The weather here is the biggest boon: it’s not too hot and we still don’t need coats so we can walk to the school every day in shirt sleeves. This raises a few eyebrows among the locals who are used to seeing foreigners wearing more than just sleeves. We haven’t yet braved riding the motorbikes but have used the local buses to get us to the nearby mountain and some welcome tranquillity.

About those bikes…

It’s certainly less chaotic here than in the big cities but the bikes still drive you mad. The placid Vietnamese character is utterly transformed when on a motorised two-wheeler. Crossing the road is always life-threatening with these jokers coming at you from all directions. Honking the horn is genetically programmed and the way to tell pedestrians to ‘Get out of my way, chowder-head, ‘cos I’m not stopping’. It makes no difference if the biker is on the pavement or on the wrong side of the road. Incidentally, the pavements (sidewalks) have demarcation lines painted that allow bikes to be parked near the shop/building but allowing room for pedestrians to pass. This is often ignored, forcing the walker on to the road or into the sewer, etc. I think there should be a new law allowing pedestrians to kick over bikes that are in the wrong zone. Repeat offenders will see their bikes not only kicked over but repeatedly stamped upon with venom until reduced to an unrecognisable tangle. Walkers could be provided with baseball bats to facilitate this deserved entanglement.

Cars, trucks and buses have louder horns and blast them at bikers all the time – even through the night. Yes, it’s time to go…

The school have been really nice and desperately want us to stay. We are currently giving the teachers free development sessions – passing on our 11 years’ TEFL experience in games, music, activities and help with their English pronunciation which is often woeful. The boss has offered us contracts at the highest rate of pay and help with work visas – a tempting package but it still includes teaching sulky, spoilt teenagers who appear to be more interested in their iPhones, boyfriends, giggling, etc. than in learning about gerunds and infinitives. I’m baffled. What is the world coming to? Yes, it’s time to go…

One of our lasting impressions of this place is the ‘Squeezy-bottle Ladies’. These women walk the streets with their shoulder poles, collecting (what appears to be) rubbish, alerting people with a squeaking noise from a washing-up bottle. They are the Vietnamese equivalents of what we used to call ‘Rag and Bone Men’. Rubbish is often recycled by collectors – many women go round the dumpsters, packing up bags of trash on their bikes, creating a double whammy for pedestrians: being mowed down then dumped on by sacks of crud! Guess it’s time to go…

Helen thinks I’m being a bit negative but I say: ‘Nonsense! I’ve really liked the smoothies in our local café!’ I say with all earnestness. But, we’ve had too many smoothies – it’s time to go.

We’ve been staying in a great hotel, ‘Dreams’ on Phan Dinh Phung; I know Helen’s mentioned it in her e-mails. We’ve got a big room with modern, flat-screen TV (with HDMI – a real plus for playing films on the laptop). We get an enormous buffet breakfast every morning with unlimited French bread, peanut butter, Marmite, eggs and endless fruits served in an old-fashioned ‘all-around-the-kitchen-table’ style and we often spend ages chatting away to all the other guests. Our host gives us free laundry and arranges anything we want. Oh yes, and did I mention this is all for about £15 a night (less than $25) for the two of us?

Another ray of light in this area is the nearby Lang Biang mountain range. We’ve been there a few times and really like the area, being mercifully free of motorbikes. Last weekend we had a guide take us to the top of one of the peaks, accessible only via a little-known, steep route, not for the badly-legged. We were up at 4 am and on top of the mountain at 8. We got stunning views at the top. En-route, we managed to spot Black Bulbuls, Verditer and Little Pied Flycatchers and Green-Backed Tits – all lifers – so the day was a complete result – pictures: trek up Lang Biang mountain, 28th October:

So, a quick summary: Easy Riders offering trips on the backs of bikes or in taxis are everywhere – these guys pester tourists daily, asking questions like: ‘Hi, where you from?’ I shout back: ‘I refuse to continue a discourse with anyone who omits auxiliary verbs!’ Actually, no, I usually resist the opportunity to correct their grammar but when they realise you’re from England they cheerfully jibe with some rib-tickling colloquialism like ‘Oh, luvly-jubbly!’ or ask about the Queen. My favourite is when they ask: ‘Hi, what you looking for today?’ and I reply: ‘An easy life’. What fun we have…

Beautiful flowers like poinsettia growing wild around the town; houses with enormous, elaborate gates (the local Mafia boss must be a gate-maker); the lake where one can wander round in relative serenity watching Javan pond herons flying over; our favourite evening meal spot, ‘The Peace Café’ providing no-nonsense food and the local Da Lat red wine (which we’ve taken quite a fancy to, hic!); evenings with our fellow, Aussie, teacher friend, Sue, and her daughter, drinking 333 beer and griping about the students; inflated bags of crisps in all the shops due to the low air pressure here and all bags packed in the lowlands; being millionaires again (500,000 dong = $25).

But, it’s time to go so, bye for now.

Andy, 1.11.12, Da Lat, Vietnam.

Here’s a picture of a Verditer Flycatcher, taken from the web:

Look at this beauty – Verditer Flycatcher

October 3, 2012

44. Da Lat

Filed under: Vietnam — Andy @ 1:29 pm

Our lake

Picture album:

After a brief stop back in HCMC, long enough for some woman to steal Helen’s one-and-only necklace, we caught the bus to Da Lat. Although very close on the map (300km) the journey took eight-and-a-half hours. Da Lat is up in the mountains north of Saigon and the roads are somewhat poor. Accidents are common – we saw the aftermath of a double bus crash which must have happened shortly before our arrival. If we’d caught the earlier bus…

Da Lat isn’t especially pretty, despite many people saying it is! Its advantage for us is that it is cooler than most other parts of the country. Yesterday, as the locals shivered in their fur coats and anoraks, I almost had occasion to put on a jumper, but not quite. It’s called ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ and has a rather nice lake with some good bird-life. It is chock-full of hotels – apparently, it’s very popular with the Vietnamese as a place to cool down once in a while. It’s the rainy season now and it rains every afternoon without fail.

We checked out the schools here and found a place called The American Academy. I asked them how many native English teachers they had. ‘Three: two Dutch and an Australian lady’, the boss answered. ‘OK, barely one then!’ I jested. So, we realised that they badly needed some proper English teachers and decided to give it a go. Last week we had trial lessons being observed and they seemed to like us. This week we’re working 6 days, mainly in the evenings. If the students like us, then we get the jobs. Our rate of pay also seems to be determined by how much the students like us – we may be rewarded by the top rate of $12 an hour, we don’t know yet. We’ve decided to stay for a while, maybe a month or two, and we’ve done a deal with our current hotel for the month of October. We can’t rent accommodation as we don’t have work permits but hotels can be quite cheap. But we’re spoilt here, staying in a great hotel (‘Dreams’) with massive breakfast and a large room – all for $25 a night. Every morning we meet new guests at the big communal breakfast table and often stay for a couple of hours chatting to the many Germans, French, Aussies, Swiss, Chinese and Slovaks who are also travelling. All the above have much better English than our students whose pronunciation is the worst we’ve come across in the 11 years we’ve been TEFLing. Vietnamese have great difficulty pronouncing terminal consonants and sibilants; words like ‘rice’ come out as ‘rai’. We spend most of the lesson asking students to repeat everything they say – one reason why we probably won’t be staying too long.

Da Lat has a pretty railway station and has recently reopened a line a few kilometres to the town of Trai Mat with its extraordinary pagoda. The journey along the small, single-track rail is very slow but takes you beside all the farms where every inch of space is used to grow something. The area around here is renowned for its flowers and its vegetables and it’s very easy to get an ‘English curry’ in the local cafes and restaurants (with potatoes, broccoli, carrots and beans).

We’ve just experienced one of the bigger occasions in Vietnam: the mid-Autumn festival. It’s a time when kids parade the streets in their dragon/lion outfits, accompanied by drums and gongs, looking for cash from the shopkeepers. It’s a time when, traditionally, parents spoil the kids as reward for their tolerance of being ignored the past few months as the parents work hard in the fields.

There’s some interesting countryside around here with many ethnic minority villages, coffee plantations, silk and mushroom farms so last week we had a special treat and hired a guy to take us round all the nearby places. One such place was the ‘Elephant Falls’ which the Lonely Planet describes in classic understatement as ‘approached by an uneven and sometimes hazardous path’. Now, I quite like a challenge but I wouldn’t do that again. All I can say is that walking along jagged, slippery rocks, with nothing to hold on to, knowing that one slip would send you tumbling irretrievably into a deep, dark crevasse (clearly containing the detritus of previously-fallen holiday-makers) is something that would be instantly outlawed in Europe. Hurrah! for the nanny state!

Vietnam is becoming big in the world of coffee production and exporting. One unique brand of coffee called ‘Ca Phe Chon’ is made from beans that have first passed through the digestive system of a weasel. The beans plop out, marginally affected by an enzyme specific to weasels, and give a certain piquancy to the coffee. I bet it does! The brand is highly sought after and very expensive.

One final thing – if you like crazy architecture, you’ll love the ‘Crazy House’ in Da Lat. This place is almost beyond description – see the pictures. The well-known owner, Hang Nga, studied architecture in Moscow and clearly had too much time on her hands when she ‘designed’ this place. Her father was Ho Chi Minh’s successor as second president between 1981 and 1988 so she isn’t short of a bob or two. The house is still under construction but has guest bedrooms so offers accommodation for the somewhat unhinged traveller.

Andy, 3.10.12, Da Lat

September 17, 2012

43. Hoi An

Filed under: Vietnam — Andy @ 3:31 pm

Picture album:

Hoi An, tailor’s shops

As fat, affluent, Western tourists, we decided to get a taxi from Da Nang to here. The road between the two towns is like something from Ocean Boulevard: smart hotels and conference centres, posh restaurants, etc. – the book says that this area is ‘going places’ and I believe it.

Hoi An is a delightful little town, crammed full with tailor’s shops. Helen really likes this place – it’s billed as a very pretty, must-see town and I’d agree. Everything is low-rise and low-key – a well-needed respite from the madness of the other towns and cities in this chaotic country. We may end up staying here as it’s the perfect place to cycle and scoot without a 50:50 chance of dismemberment. There’s street food sold in the cafés and the local disabled people sell the English newspapers. We got to know a few of the locals and ended up chatting a while with them in our local boozer.

There is a downside: there are a lot of tourists here (surprise!). I often try to imagine what the locals think of the influx of monsters that turn up every day – well worth fleecing, I guess.

Helen, Stacey and Paul – the rats are eating to the right of Paul’s bum!

The night before, we’d met up with Paul, a teacher in Da Nang and we met him again in Hoi An together with the lovely Stacey from Peterlee who has only recently embarked on the TEFL world. She made the decision to get away from it all after working in Hartlepool for a while… OK, no explanation is necessary. We had a great night, culminating in a riverside evening meal in a wonderful setting accompanied by a flange of rats eating some left-over grub just next to where we were sitting. Yes, if you really don’t like rats, Vietnam is not the place for you!

We actually had a birding detour here (see birding blog – I know you want to!) and spotted a few kingfishers and bee-eaters.

The second day we took a dawn trip to the ancient ruins of the Champa kingdom in My Son – not pronounced as I know you cockneys are doing right now but as ‘Me Sun’.

Odd things so far: in complete contrast to Russia, it’s almost impossible to find a chemist’s shop. Where we used to live in Moscow, there were Aptekas everywhere, and huge queues getting in. Everyone had ailments. The same in South America. Here, can you find a pharmacy?! Eventually, we did and bought the entire shop.

You’ll see from my photos of the girls, particularly those on motorbikes that, despite the heat, most are almost entirely covered up – some with long sleeves and gloves, full-face masks, tights, anoraks… ‘What’s it all about?’ I hear you saying. Well, it seems that being white is the ultimate goal and so they loathe the thought of being tanned. Knowing what we know about the white man, ‘aint that a hoot?

Saigon, 17/9/2012

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