London, part deux…

One of the things I love most about England is the food. Yep, I am THAT committed of an Anglophile. But English food gets a bad rap. It may not be thought of as dazzlingly innovative or exotic (or flavorful), but people who think the English don’t know how to eat haven’t been looking in the right places. There are things the English do better than ANYONE.

First, breakfast. There are few pleasures on earth as sublime as a full English breakfast. I got my fix at a pub called The Sanctuary, right around the corner from Westminster Abbey. (It’s a perfect location if you’re sightseeing near the houses of Parliament). The pub itself is lovely–think Georgian rather than Tudorish with high ceilings and light paint and mirrors instead of low beams–and the full English on a Sunday morning is a thing of beauty. Eggs, toast, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon, and Cumberland sausages. (My inability to get good Cumberland sausages in this country is a source of continuing sadness.) I asked them to leave off the blood pudding–because even my Anglophilia doesn’t stretch that far–but fans of Cajun blood sausage will feel right at home. It was beautifully cooked and utterly delicious and I need to stop writing about it this instant because I’m actually drooling on the keyboard.

Next, tea nibblies. No one surpasses the English at yummy things to eat with tea. Whether you want a plain scone, a cream tea, sandwiches, the English have you covered. For the record, high tea is not a fancy tea. High tea is what laboring folk used to eat after work and it consisted of more substantial food than we usually associate with teatime. In some places it’s even called “meat tea” because the food might be a chop. American hotels and restaurants persist in using the phrase “high tea” but what they really mean is “full tea”–sweets, sandwiches, and savories like tiny quiches. While I appreciate a cucumber sandwich as much as the next girl, a nice cream tea is my favorite. The sweet pastries served with a full tea are usually too sweet for me, but a scone with jam and double cream is just the thing. There’s a wee bit of sweetness from the fruit in the scone and the jam, while the double cream–also called clotted cream, Devon cream, Cornish cream–supplies the indulgence factor. I can never eat more than one loaded scone, and a good cream tea will keep you going for HOURS.

Often with tea comes a cake called a Victoria sponge, a light vanilla sponge cake split and slathered in jam and custard. While it’s perfectly yummy, it falls into the category of “too sweet” for me. For afternoon tea at the Cellarium at Westminster Abbey, they pop a tiny fairy cake version onto the tray, and that’s the perfect amount of Victoria sponge for me. Otherwise it usually arrives in a substantial slab that is best shared between two people.

The English are also inordinately talented at fish and chips, a dish I’m told they stole from the Portuguese. I never had a bad plate the entire time I was there, although the inevitable accompaniment of mushy peas takes a little getting used to. Good fish and chips is crisp and hot, NOT greasy, and it’s immensely comforting, like nursery food for grown-ups. I had a surprisingly good plate at the Tower of London cafe during a torrential downpour that politely lasted only as long as I was eating my lunch and stopped just as I stepped back outside.

The other meal the English do to perfection is the Sunday roast lunch. Our last meal in England was in a pub called the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s nestled at the foot of Windsor Castle, and the pub itself is bright and modern–a perfect spot to grab a drink after you’ve done the obligatory sight-seeing. But if you can possibly arrange it, go on a Sunday and order the roast lunch. I opted for the beef–naturally–and it was one of the most delectable meals of my entire life. The vegetables tasted as if the chef had just plucked them out of the ground, the beef was tender, the Yorkshire pudding crisp, and the gravy was so unspeakably delicious, I almost had to stab my tablemates with my fork to get them to stop eating it. (They also do roasted chicken or pork loin for their Sunday lunch complete with trimmings, and the fish and chips which showed up at our table was also superb.) If I lived in Windsor, I wouldn’t ever cook; I’d just turn up at their doorstep every day and beg them to feed me.

But even the most delicious English food can leave you longing for a little something from home, and any time I travel for more than a week, I find myself craving a good burger or a pizza. Even there, London has you covered. Near Piccadilly and the gorgeous shops on Regent Street, the enclave of Kingly Court is a must-do for the hungry traveler. There are loads of restaurants and bars catering to every taste–even Peruvian! We opted for Pizza Pilgrims for pizzas straight from the wood-burning oven, and they were so good we went back another night, happily sitting on the drizzly patio just to get a second helping of the smoky, yeasty, tomatoey goodness. The pizzas are beyond fresh, and the arancini–fried balls of rice and tomato–are a splendid appetizer.

Another evening, we had cocktails in Kingly Court at Cahoots, a theme bar straight from WWII London’s Underground. It was fun and colorful with divine cocktails, and totally worth the effort to get in. (There’s no sign. You have to KNOW about Cahoots and make reservations in advance to get directions and a password. The same company runs Mr. Fogg’s, a Victorian steampunk bar in Mayfair we were dying to try, but they have a strict over-21 policy and one of our party was juuuuust underage.) I ordered something called a Gypsy’s Kiss, and it completely changed my mind about gin. Desperate to soak up the liquor, we asked our waiter for recommendations and he pointed us to Byron Burger, a small chain of burger joints dotted about the city. I ordered a Chilli Queen burger, and now I cry on a regular basis because I can’t get it here in the States. IT’S THAT GOOD. Not only are the burgers spectacular, but where else can you get a spiked milkshake? (I strongly recommend the chocolate with a shot of bourbon.)

Finally, if you’re at Harrod’s–and honestly, who isn’t at some point?–speed past the bustling bartop restaurants in the Food Hall and make straight for Galvin Demoiselle instead. It’s perched up a short flight of stairs, hovering over the teeming masses of shoppers, a quiet oasis where you can sip a glass of cold Prosecco and nibble some marcona almost while you admire the flowers across the way at Moyses Stevens.

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I’m back, chickens!

I’m back in the US and finally recovered from jet lag. (They say it takes about a day for each hour off you are, and that’s roughly true. It took four days for me to stop falling into bed at 9pm and waking up at 5…)

The London part of the trip was pretty spectacular. The weather was cool and occasionally damp–perfect English sightseeing weather. (We’re going to draw a veil of the Paris portion of the trip. Let’s just say that boiling heat, heaving crowds, and the inescapable smell of urine combined with FREAKY WHISTLING CLOWNS ON THE STREET are not a winning combination. But I will say go to Versailles. If you have the chance, always go to Versailles.) There are so many, many things I could say about London, all of them loving. I simply adore that city, and every time I go I revisit my favorites and try to find a few new ones to add to the list.

Here are some of the highlights:

*Westminster Abbey. The architecture is stunning, but unlike some other enormous churches, the Abbey feels warm and happy. (I may be projecting here because it was the scene of William and Kate’s wedding…) It is one of London’s must-see attractions, and as such it’s packed with a looooong line to get in. But I’ve learned a few things that might make your visit a little easier. First, buy your ticket online. We couldn’t because we weren’t certain of when we were going, but the difference in wait times was shocking.

Next, after you’ve done the Abbey proper, don’t miss the cloisters and gardens. They are so peaceful and quiet, you will absolutely forget that you are in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. There are plenty of benches so you can sit and rest your feet while you admire the stunningly beautiful architecture. If you need a bite, head to the Cellarium. It’s tucked away through the Dean’s Yard, and a little tricky to find, but there are loads of helpful people to point you in the right direction. The cafe stretches over two levels and serves full English breakfast, lunch, tea, etc. (Limited breakfast menu on Sundays.) It’s a truly lovely place to relax with a glass of wine or a pot of tea.

Now, when we were visiting, the one thing I desperately wanted to see was the tomb of Edward I. The Abbey is loaded with royal tombs, but this one was the most special to me. (As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, Edward I was my 21st-great-grandfather, and the idea that I would be visiting my ancestor’s burial place was hugely moving to me.) But here’s the rub–Edward I is buried up in the shrine of Edward the Confessor, the oldest and holiest part of the Abbey, and the part that is not open to the general public. All I could see was the plain black side of his tomb, looming up above my head. It was hugely disappointing, so I found the nearest warden and asked if there are any private tours available. The answer was, “Oh, so sorry, no, BUT…” and then she proceeded to explain to me that twice a day–11am and 3pm–there were prayer services in the shrine.

We had missed the 3pm service, but the next day we followed her instructions and showed up at the side gate to the Abbey and told the warden on duty that we were there for the prayer service in the shrine. Five minutes before the service, he waved us through, and I thought we were on our own, but to my amazement, once we were in the Abbey, another warden made a beeline for us and escorted us to seats next to the high altar. (If you were watching William and Kate’s wedding, we were sitting where the Queen and Prince Philip were.) He told us to sit there for the brief Abbey-wide prayer service and then stay until someone came to fetch us. It took me a minute to realize that the wardens all communicate via earpieces–very Secret Service and quite cool, actually.

The prayer service was only a moment or two, and the minute it was done, a third warden swooped down and grabbed us, guiding us to the tiny winding wooden stair that leads up to the shrine of Edward the Confessor. His tomb is in the center of the shrine, circled by various royal tombs. It has been a site of worship and veneration for a millennium, and I can’t even begin to describe what a thrill it was to be in that sacred space with the bones of my ancestors. (Edward I’s father, Henry III, is also buried there in a considerably more lavish tomb than his son.) There were chairs arranged around Edward the Confessor’s tomb, and I took the one just in front of Edward I. We participated in a short prayer service and were then invited to walk slowly around the Confessor’s tomb in contemplation. It was indescribably moving, and I was surprised I managed not to bawl all over the place. (I admit, I did well up, and the warden who conducted us out asked, “Is everything QUITE alright, madam?” God, I love the British.)

The entire event lasted only about a quarter of an hour, but it was utterly wonderful, and if you are looking for a really meaningful way to enjoy the Abbey, do ask about the prayer services. Alternately, you can pop in for evensong on Wednesday evenings–a magical experience from what I’ve heard.

I intended to write more about the trip, but I seem to have burned an entire blog on the Abbey alone! For the month of August, I’ll be blogging about the trip and goodies for the upcoming release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING as well as finishing up the second Veronica book, due to my editor August 31. Then, September 2 starts the book tour for A CURIOUS BEGINNING! The next newsletter, August 5, is featuring a second excerpt from the book, so be sure you’ve signed up–and don’t forget to keep checking Twitter, FB, and the Tour page for appearances.

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Lots o’links!

Round-up of links today–saddle up!

*Interesting article on “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction.” It was published QUITE a while back, but well worth reading.

*Social Customs from the Regency Era via Jane Austen’s World. This one is a superb resource for learning more about what folks were really getting up to in the early 19th century.

*Sure, we all love the magic and mystery of perfume, but have you ever wondered about the science of it? This article shows how your favorite scent is conjured. For a different take, read Capturing the Scent of a Flower.

*Speaking of perfume, my favorite hot weather scent is Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria Mandarine Basilic. Citrussy, cool, herbal–there is nothing more refreshing when the mercury is climbing.

*Need some stylish inspiration? Matchbook Magazine has you covered. It’s bright, cheerful, and always full of creative tips. Check out the daily feature!

*Looking to improve your chess game? Here are 50 strategies to help.

*I’m absolutely smitten with Papaya Art. They make perfect gifts for the creative person in your life.

*Got a literary lover to buy for? Check out Jezebel Charms!

*And sometimes you just have to answer the question, How Many Zombies Can You Kill?

 

 

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I am depending upon the kindness of strangers…

Today’s blog topic is loving, and there is nothing I’m loving harder right now than the advance praise for A CURIOUS BEGINNING! It’s a bizarre thing to work so hard on a book allllll alllllone and then send it out into the world to see what people think. This book was sent to writers I admire tremendously, and I was utterly thrilled that they liked it. Here’s what they had to say:

“No one write parasols, petticoats, and pistols like Deanna Raybourn.  Veronica Speedwell is a terror and a delight (but mostly the latter).  Hip hip hooray for a new Raybourn series!”–Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author of the Pink Carnation series and The Other Daughter

“With wicked intelligence, Deanna Raybourn has created a fresh and fascinating sleuth. Veronica Speedwell is sure to join the greats of mystery fiction. Impeccably plotted and meticulously researched, A Curious Beginning will leave you, as it left me, whimpering for more.”   –Alan Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of the Flavia de Luce series

“Deanna Raybourn writes with wisdom, sass and a rich texture that is a joy to read. I love this book!  A Curious Beginning brings us the powerful Veronica Speedwell who triumphs over adversity and danger with wit, charm and uncanny determination. This is a real find for mystery lovers!” –Robyn Carr, New York Times bestselling author of the Virgin River series

“I’ve been a big fan of Deanna’s for some time and this book was a treat to read. How could I resist a royal scandal, and Irish plot and a really sexy hero who has a tendency to work with no shirt on? Deanna is one of the few writers who can make history feel immediate and exciting without losing a feel for the period.”–Rhys Bowen, New York Times bestselling author of the Her Royal Spyness series

A Curious Beginning is a fantastic read, both wickedly clever and devilishly amusing. Like a grown-up Flavia de Luce, Victorian explorer and naturalist Veronica Speedwell is a joy — slaying rapscallions, scoundrels and dullards alike with her bon mots — or sharpened hatpin. She’s an unflappable, unrepentant, and thoroughly delightful butterfly of a new heroine—and I’m already impatiently drumming my fingers awaiting the next book.”— Susan Elia MacNeal, New York Times bestselling author of the Maggie Hope series

 

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I could be watching the Tour

Today’s theme is watching. Oh, chickens. It’s July, and if you’ve spent any time here in the summer, you know this is TOUR DE FRANCE MONTH. Due to circumstances beyond my control, this was the time we had to be in Europe. We left on day three, and we’ll arrive home again with a mere handful of stages left. For me, the Tour is best watched in its entirety, from the Grand Depart to the very last sprint on the Champs-Elysees. (Forgive the lack of diacriticals there. That is a skill I have yet to master.)

I love the long, lazy days of rolling through the spectacular French countryside; I love the brutal Pyrenees, the harsh Alps. I love the cobblestones waiting to trip the unwary rider, the shared camaraderie of the feed zone. I love the strange characters collected by the roadside, the invariable dramas that play out over the course of three weeks of relentless pursuit. I love it because of the sheer magnitude of what it demands. It is an unforgiving trial, torturous in the extreme, and only the strong survive.

And I get to watch it all from the comfort of my sofa, like a lesser Roman empress, following the tribulations of people who are actually exerting themselves while I lie around in air-conditioned comfort.

Not this  year. If I’m lucky, I’ll manage a few stages–probably no more than four. And considering the fact that I am missing it to actually SEE France, I won’t regret a single one.

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Digging in the archives for rules for Southern ladies

This post from the archives was originally published in 2007.

I started thinking the other day about the rules I was raised with. Not the little stuff like, “Don’t lie” and “Don’t steal”, but the BIG rules, the ones that apply to Southern girls. In no particular order, here are the ones I remember most clearly:

*Ladies don’t wear red shoes. (My very favorite pair of shoes is a pair of four-inch red suede stilettos with ankle straps. I wear them to publishing trade shows just for the glamour factor. I intend to be cremated with them on.)

*Ladies don’t wear red nail polish. (Seeing a theme here yet? Apparently red was for tramps and little girls. Personally, I started wearing red polish on my toes when I was thirteen and that is the ONLY color I wear. When I went in for foot surgery, I sweet-talked my podiatrist into letting me keep my pedicure intact because I don’t EVER walk around with bare toenails.)

*Ladies don’t drink beer out of a bottle. (Alright, I confess, I observe this one. I drink beer about once a year, and when I do, it’s in a glass. I don’t want to be the one responsible for my grandmother spinning in her grave.)

*Ladies do not chew gum in the street. (I never chew gum, so I can hold my head high on this one. We’re not even going to talk about the most inappropriate place I caught my mama chewing gum, but it rhymes with MY WEDDING.)

*Ladies do not wear white shoes after Labor Day or before Easter. (Yes, there are lots of shoe rules, but honestly, this one really ought to read, “Ladies do not wear white shoes EVER because they make your feet look like outrigger canoes.” Except the gorgeous Louboutins my darling friend Ashley wore when she got married. They were divine, and if we wore the same size, I would happily commit larceny to get my hands on them.)

*Ladies don’t speak ill of the dead. (If you can’t speak ill of them when they’re dead, when CAN you speak ill of them?)

*Ladies don’t smoke in public. (Alright, I’m going to confess something here that does not reflect well upon me at all: I wish I smoked. I blame Turner Classic Movies. All those films from the 1930s have brainwashed me, but smoking is cool. It’s stylish and sexy, and I would have so much fun collecting lighters with my initials set in diamonds. But I have never smoked, and I will not start. I’ve had too many issues with my lungs to treat them anything but nicely, but if I DID smoke, you can be sure I would do it in public, and dramatically too. There might even be a slim black cigarette holder involved. Or maybe veeeeeery thin Spanish cigars.)

And the one incontrovertible rule:

*Ladies write thank-you notes. (YES. There is no excuse for not expressing your heartfelt appreciation for someone’s efforts on your behalf. I have monogrammed correspondence cards that I use often, although sometimes I fall back on e-mail simply out of necessity. I try very, very hard to slow down enough to acknowledge the many, many kindnesses people show me on a daily basis. Writing seems like a solitary occupation; it isn’t. There are entire departments at my publisher that work tirelessly every day to make my books successful. There are experts who give so generously of their time and knowledge, answering my questions and holding my hand when I need information. And there are readers and booksellers who take the time to let me know on a daily basis how much my work means to them. When I gush, and I DO gush, it is entirely sincere. I am genuinely amazed and thrilled that I get to do what I do, and the fact that so many lovely people HELP me do it, is just the icing on the red velvet cake.)

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Sometimes the best thing you can do is not write

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? As a writer, you’re supposed to write. ALL THE TIME, EVERY DAY, NO EXCEPTIONS. That’s what we hear over and over, and after much consideration, my response to this is: PFFFFFFTTTTT.

No, really. I don’t write every day and I’m pretty sure there are some people who would take back my OFFICIAL PROFESSIONAL WRITER card for that. But here’s the thing: writing is exhausting. It’s mentally taxing to juggle storylines, characters, conflicts, backstories, and structure all the time. Sometimes you just have to jump off the hamster wheel. The trick is knowing when.

So when do I bail on writing? Between drafts. This is sacred time. The manuscript gets put aside, sometimes for a week if I’m VERY unlucky; sometimes as long as a month. I don’t like it to sit too much longer than that because I don’t want to start forgetting the intricacies of the book. Three weeks is my absolute sweet spot, and it’s what I’m doing right now with the second Veronica Speedwell book. Between the two weeks in Europe and the days on either end of the trip to deal with packing and jet lag, I’ll get three weeks to let the book sit quietly, bubbling away, FERMENTING.

And when I come back, miraculously, magically, those rough spots will smooth right down. The holes I couldn’t figure out how to plug will have conjured their own fixes. The areas I liked will blossom into something even better. How does this strange alchemy work? Absence, in this case, really does make the heart grow fonder. The book doesn’t change at all, but without the constant presence of it sitting in my brain, I do change. I get just enough distance to gain some objectivity. I can appreciate what I’ve done well, acknowledge what I’ve done poorly, and my subconscious has a chance to work its magic, offering up solutions while I was resting.

I can’t wait to get back to this book when I get home–mostly because I know I will be so much better when I pick it back up.

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It must be hot

I’m not at home right now–YAY for European travel!–but I’m quite certain it’s hot at home. And July in Virginia is not the good kind of hot. It’s not a dry heat, particularly where I live. It’s muggy and soupy, and walking around outside feels like WADING. It’s purely gross, and the only antidote, besides scads of liquids and the gentle blessing of air conditioning, is cold food.

I’ve been making Nigella’s Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad for years. It’s dead easy; it gets better the longer it sits, and it’s happy to lie around in the fridge waiting to be picked at with a fork when you’re too tired to actually EAT. I have added a few tweaks:

*I don’t make this with fish sauce because to my taste, that is an abomination. I LOATHE fish sauce. A little extra soy will give it the salty boost it needs.

*A touch of heat is a lovely thing. A touch of heat with some vinegary sharpness is DIVINE. In spite of the chili already called for, this one cries out for some sriracha. You could also do fresh jalapeno if you’re very hardcore.

*Buy pre-roasted chicken from your grocer’s deli. No point in heating up your own kitchen and you absolutely cannot tell the difference.

*Buy pre-shredded cabbage. Because sometimes it’s just too hot to pick up a knife.

*I sub a few green onions for the medium onion called for. I like them better in this salad. If I were going for a proper, grown-up onion, I’d choose red and marinate the slices in bit of the lime juice first to knock back the bite.

*Yes, you really do need that much mint. If you’re utterly opposed to mint, I’d go with cilantro.

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Today’s ancestor is “holy” royal

Titling this entry with a bad pun doesn’t seem very nice, does it? But today’s ancestor was a most interesting fellow. As I mentioned in a previous entry, my gateway ancestor to all of this historical goodness is Edward I. His second wife, Margaret of France, was the granddaughter of Louis IX, making this king of France my 23rd-great-grandfather. (As the father of eleven, Louis can claim a fair few million descendants today.) Louis was a king of the Capet dynasty, and the only king of France to be canonized as a saint. Yep, Louis IX is also Saint Louis–the one for whom the city in Missouri is named.

He was a crusader–in both interpretations of the word. He worked hard to eradicate blasphemy and prostitution; he introduced a presumption of innocence in criminal matters. He also participated in the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, both of which were failures from the perspective of the Christian kings of Europe. Louis was far more successful as a patron of the arts. He built Sainte-Chapelle, a glorious Gothic chapel commissioned as a home for the relics of the Crucifixion. (Purchased from the emperor of Constantinople, the relics cost twice as much as the exquisite chapel itself.)

On the negative side of the balance sheet, like most Christians of the era, he was anti-Semitic, burning thousands of Jewish books as well as interfering with the traditionally Jewish occupation of money-lending, and he was rabidly opposed to any reform within the Catholic church.

Because of his devout religious practices, he was held up by the pope as an example of a perfect Christian monarch and eventually canonized. His hair shirt and scourge are in the collection at Notre-Dame–in surprisingly good condition.

Perhaps the most human thing about Louis is his marriage. At the age of twenty he married the 13-year old Margaret of Provence, one of four beautiful daughters of the Count of Provence–all of whom made superb matches. (All four girls became queens. I’m descended from Margaret and her sister, Eleanor, Queen of England to Henry III.) King at the age of twelve, Louis had relied upon the regency of his mother, Blanche of Castile. His marriage coincided with his desire to take more responsibility onto his own shoulders, a development that wasn’t entirely to his mother’s liking. She interfered in the domestic arrangements, ensuring that the newlyweds were lodged far apart and it was said she preferred them to spend no time together except when the king needed to lie with the queen to get an heir.

In spite of his mother’s meddling, Louis was, for many years, devoted to his bride. For her part, Margaret used to rise from their marriage bed to put a robe around the cold shoulders of her devout husband as he knelt in prayer. In later years, tired of his wife’s involvement in politics, Louis expressed irritation with her attempts to dominate their son and heir. Perhaps it brought back too many memories of his own mother’s troublesome ways?

Louis died in his fifties in Tunis while on Crusade, possibly of plague although modern scholars seem to believe it was dysentery. His courtiers employed the method of mos Teutonicus after his death, stripping the flesh from his bones so that they could be returned to France. His remains, once housed in a splendid tomb, were lost during the French Wars of Religion. It is said that a single finger was recovered and is housed at Saint-Denis, the traditional resting place of French kings.

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An excerpt is coming, an excerpt is coming!

If you don’t already subscribe to the monthly newsletter, NOW IS THE TIME! This month’s issue, going out July 5, will feature a two-chapter excerpt from A CURIOUS BEGINNING! Huge thanks to my publisher for making that available–can’t wait for you to meet Veronica!

(If you need to sign up, just cast your eyes over to the right-hand sidebar——–>)

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