September 20, 2002

Olá from Portugal! Yes, I´ve moved on to a country where I find it even harder to communicate than Spain. I know very little Portuguese, just what I´ve gotten from my guide books. Bom dia. Obrigado. Quanto custa? (How much is it?) That sort of thing. I´ve figured out that if it ends with an ´o´ then you pronounce it ´oo´. If it ends with an ´s´ chances are you pronounce it ´sh´. That´s about as far as I´ve gotten. I point a lot and a lot of people know English or even Spanish as a last resort. I´ve been getting by with my current landlady by using pidgeon Spanish.

Let´s see...I left off in Santiago. I spend one more day there, a Monday. It´s a valid point to notice the day of the week, because my plan for the day involved museums--the contemporary art museum, the museum of peregrinos, etc... Apparently it´s pretty common for museums to be closed on Mondays. They all were. Meanwhile, I´d done quite a bit of trekking and getting lost to get to them.

All was not lost, though. On my way to the closed contemporary art museum I discovered a large mercado, where they were selling vegetables, fish, and meat. I wandered around, but ultimately didn´t buy anything. I´d come across a similar market in San Sebastián where they had lots of fabulous fish and octopus and things. I got depressed that I didn´t have a stove to cook them. It´s odd that in San Francisco of all places I can´t find beautiful cheap seafood like that. I can find the nice fish, but cheap is another story. And there´s not nearly so much.

I also, while trekking, saw a demonstration of wine workers. I´m not sure what they were exactly, grape pickers or processors or growers or what, but I got vinho which means wine so they were winey in some way. It was a union and I felt strangely compelled to support them, join them, spread the word. My union at work has been fighting for over a year for payraises. I guess it hit a nerve.

My way back from the closed museums was much easier as I didn´t get lost, and it was a pretty straight shot. Soon I was back at the cathedral, wandering and looking and shopping. I did go to the museum in the cathedral, which was thankfully open. Some interesting things, some gold treasures, a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had been given to them by Mexico, bits and pieces of things.

That night, whilst at an internet cafe, it started to rain. It had rained every day I´d been in Santiago, at least a little bit. It never amounted to anything. Of course that night, when I was just about as far from my Pensión as I had been the whole visit there, it was a downpour. I heard it from inside the cafe, pounding on the windows. Sadly, that was just before I was ready to leave.

I´ve lost my habit of always carrying a jacket with me everywhere, something that is ingrained in me in San Francisco where the weather is nothing if not unpredictable. So I was left with no jacket, no paragua (umbrella), and a longish sprint home.

It was a lovely storm, though. Thunder and lightning, the whole business. I watched it eventually from my room, eating a picnic of sandwich and pastry on my bed, looking out at the lightning over the cathedral. Not a bad night, really, once I got dry.

I left the next day for Oporto. I thought it was a very short train ride, only 3 hours or so, thinking that Portugal was an hour ahead of Spain. It turned out to be an hour behind Spain, something I got confused, and the train trip was about 5 hours. But it was nice, seeing the land, seeing the river in Vigo and the suspension bridge, the cornfields in Spain, the vines in Portugal, the green hills everywhere. All the train stations in Portugal and dotted or covered with azulejos, painted tiles. It´s very beautiful. Even the train stations are attractive.

I arrived at Oporto in the middle of the afternoon. I called a hostal and got a room right away. The only trick was, yes, once again, it was pouring rain. I seem to be getting a lot of that. And my hostal, as it turned out, was entirely uphill. So, rain jacket on, backpack weighing me down, wind blowing my hood off periodically, I trudged uphill on slippery wet stones to my hostal. All the streets and sidewalks in Portugal--as far as I´ve gone at this point--have been made of generally little square stones or alternatively larger rounded stones. There seems to be no cement here. It makes for very attractive, quaint, interesting streets--often with pictures formed into them; but it makes for slippery when wet and uneven, foot punishing, streets. My feet hurt more since I arrived in Portugal than in all the previous days in Spain.

I arrived at my hostal, soaking wet and hot and tired, and was given a room on the top floor. 4th Floor. Which in European terms means 5th Floor as there´s a ground level before the 1st Floor. So more trudging, up the stairs, until I found my room. It was a great little room. It reminded me of a writer´s garrett, somewhere where I could write the great Portuguese novel. And I watched the rain over the roofs of the city until it cleared up. Which it luckily did after about an hour.

I wandered back down the hill to the Ribeira district, down by the river, passing some lovely igrejas (churches) along the way. Ok, so I´ve picked up a very few other Portuguese words. One of them was covered in azulejos and very beautiful. I went inside the next day and the altar had living growing ferns in it, scattered throughout. I think it may be the loveliest altar I´ve seen, much prefered over the elaborate gold.

I went down to the river and strolled along taking pictures of the sunset and the Port lodges across the river. I finally decided on a restaurant for dinner and went in. I had a very traditional dinner. I had caldo verde which is literally green soup--it´s potatoes and cabbage or kale. In this case, I think it was kale in little shreds. It was very good. Then I had grilled sardines. I wasn´t sure what to expect; my knowledge of sardines to that point was pretty much the things out of a can that my sister used to be grossed out when my mother ate. They were much larger than the canned, maybe 6 inches long, and there were four of them with potatoes and grilled onions. They were fresh and nicelly grilled and I liked them very much. It probably helped that I also had a nice 1/2 bottle of wine with them, but really they were good. I had a roasted apple for dessert, which was essentially like applesauce with a case--the apple skin.

I wobbled back home, somewhat tipsy, up the hill all the way. I got home safely and passed out later watching The Weakest Link in Portuguese on TV.

I´ve been enjoying Portuguese TV. There has been a TV in every room I´ve had so far. They have Big Brother in Portuguese, The Weakest Link, a morning show called Bom Dia, japanese cartoons dubbed in Portuguese, and some pretty good movies that are subtitled. Last night it was Elizabeth. I don´t understand more than the occasional word in the Portuguese shows, and yet I find them strangely compelling. Well, not Big Brother. But the others. I watched a show the other morning while packing up my backpack that was about a father who suddenly had to take care of his three daughters, them going to the grocery store, them hiring a nanny/housekeeper, dealing with the girls´problems. It was amazing how much of the show I understood without knowing one word. It was such a standard formula, I think, that I could follow along. I hope that it will help me, by osmosis, learn a little Portuguese. Probably not, but it´s worth a shot. And I like the commercials.

So the following day I did the touristy things. I went to the tower at the top of an igreja (I don´t have my journal with me to get the correct names, so you´ll have to bear with me), which was 200 steps and had a great view of the city. I went to the Igreja de São Francisco and wandered in the museum inside and the chapel. I went to the little azulejo church and saw the ferns.

Then it was off to the Port lodges. The Port lodges are across the river from Oporto and that´s where the port wine is held and bottled and blended. You can take tours and do tastings. I carefully fortified myself with a very bready sandwich and the Portuguese version of french fries (which are delicious, very thin and greasy).

I tasted first at Quinto do Noval, free tasting but no tour. Fine with me. I tasted an LB, which is a late bottled vintage, 6 yrs old, which was ok, very red but not a lot of flavor. Then I tasted a 10 yr old tawny, a light amber color, which was very sweet and tasty. MMM. Then it was off to the next stop.

I went to Sandeman next, which is like the celebrity or powerhouse port lodge there. There are Sandeman signs up all over the city. There was a tour which cost 3 euros but included a tasting, so I went for it. Our tour guide wore the black cape and wide-brimmed black hat of Sandeman´s symbol (the cape is traditionally Portuguese and the hat is traditionally Spanish from the area where Sandeman also makes sherry). It was interesting, there was a little slideshow, we saw the casks and such. The port was ok. We tried a white and a ruby. Neither was spectacular. On to the next one.

At this point, I was starting to feel the wine. Keep in mind that port is usually about 20% alcohol. So, slightly tipsy, I decided I was going to go to Taylor, which was significantly uphill fromt he rest. So up I went, minding the uneven stones and careering cars coming at me. The Portuguese, from what I´ve seen so far, drive a little insanely. They´re very fast, pay little or no attention to crosswalks, and honk their horns at the slightest provocation. According to Let´s Go, they have the highest per capita car accident rate in all of Europe.

I made it up to Taylor, face bright red, sweating buckets, and wandered into the very elegant tasting room. I was the embodiment of fish out of water. I walked over to the windows looking out on a little yard, waiting for the sweating to go away and my face to return to a normal color. I heard crowing. In the yard in front of me were a peacock and two peahens, several chickens, and a rooster. It was a little odd, to say the least. I mean, the peacock/hens have a certain elegance to them. The chickens...not so much. I felt a little better.>br>

I asked to taste and got a white port. The man told me a tour would be starting shortly so I drank up. The guide took us through Taylor, which apparently still has people stomping the grapes with their feet, unlike the other places which now use machinery. The guide spoke with a British accent, but said "um" a lot, which led me to believe he was actually Portuguese. The Americans say um when speaking their own language, but I rarely hear the English say it. It seems like the Portuguese and Spanish use it quite a bit when speaking English.

After the tour I tried an LBV and a 10 yr old tawny. Quinto do Noval still had the best port I´d tasted in their tawny. Off to the next place.

I wobbled back down the street, now slippery from rain which fell while I was touring and tasting, and I walked very slowly and carefully down the stones. I arrived at my next stop, Ferreira, a little the worse for wear. I found myself walking the lines between the stones to see how tipsy I was. I actually seemed ok. I tried not to knock anything over, including myself.

Ferreira was brought to success by a tiny little Portuguese woman in the 1800s, at time when women didn´t really do such things. She was under 4 feet tall. I don´t know why I was so struck by this fact, maybe it was the wine. Anyway, we toured, looked at casks, etc. If you have any questions about port, I now know quite a bit. Then we tasted. I tasted a medium dry white, a dry white, a 4 yr old tawny, and a 6 yr old tawny. In case anyone out there is keeping count, that´s a grand total of 11 glasses of port at 4 different lodges, in about 4 hours. I was pretty well gone at this point.

The others on my tour were an older couple from New York City--he probably late 50´s or 60, she in her 40´s. They asked me about wine tasting in Napa, which got the conversation going during the tasting. The other couple were in their early 30´s, a lawyer (her) and he worked at a publishing company. They were Dutch. They had both quit their jobs 3 1/2 months ago and were sailing across the Atlantic. They had been around Scotland, to England, presumably Spain, and now in Portugal. They were heading to the Carribbean then to Bermuda. Then they would head back. It was going to take them 15 months on a 32 foot sailboat. Suddenly my month on trains didn´t seem nearly so exciting.

So, after saying good-byes, I tottled off back to Quinto do Noval. I was well past sober at this point, but I had made up my mind that I would buy a bottle. I´d sort of planned on buying some port when in Oporto at some point. And that tawny was it. I went back and tried it again (glass #12) and bought a bottle. Now I just have to get it home in my backpack.

I got myself, somehow, across the bridge without falling in, and back to the Ribeira district. I decided I couldn´t make it home without food, but it was a bit early. So I sat at a bar and had a luckily very weak sangria, and wrote in my journal. Once enough time had past--the Portuguese start dinner around 8--I wobbled down to a restaurant and had some food. I had a sopa de legumes, which turned out to be caldo verde again, which was fine. This one had big cabbage leaves in it. I also had grilled calamares, which were very tasty, and a salad on the side with very fresh ripe tomatoes. The produce in Portugal is very fresh and good, just like the fish. I had water with dinner.

I was just sober enough to get myself home after dinner and that´s what I did. I watched some Weakest Link, wrote some, read some, and passed out eventually, I think still feeling a buzz. But my alcoholic days were done; in the morning I would leave for Aveiro.

Aveiro was a dump. Sorry to be so blunt, but there you go. It was only about an hour or so from Oporto. I went there because Let´s Go made it sound quite nice, with a canal and boats reminiscent of gondolas and Venice. There was a canal and boats, and that was about it. I took a very nice ride in one of the canal boats, about an hour, wandering through the marshy waters. It was a tourist ride, but there weren´t touristy sights to see. We saw little houses. A couple of ruins. And we went by the shipyards. It was all very cool and authentic. But once that was done...

There was a nice little church with lots of azulejos. There was a decent museum with a very beautiful tomb of Santa Joana with angels holding it up. And there was a fairly anonymous church which inside smelled like honey. But otherwise, the whole town was run down, and not in a charming way. The only other thing to do was a very modern and out of place mall.

I´ll admit it. I was cranky. It was raining. I was angry that I lost a whole day and night to Aveiro. I spent the evening in the mall. I wandered and looked at stores. I ate french fries at McDonalds. I went to see a movie--Caminho do Perdicão (Road to Perdition)--in English with subtitles. It was actually pretty good. And I had dinner at Pizza Hut. Then I went home and watched Elizabeth and ER on the TV. Aveiro was blocked out for the night--my evening was American.

This morning I came to Coimbra. I´m feeling much better now. It´s pronounced Kweem-bra. I walked all over it today, exploring the churches, the university, crossing the bridge, looking at stores. I feel proud because a street that was described as back-breakingly steep was relatively easy for me--it seemed much less difficult than the walk up from the river to my hostal in Oporto. My room is very nice, with a TV and for the first time, my own bathroom. It´s the little things that excite me these days. My own bathroom, a slightly cheaper room rate due to being the second half of September, a really good praline ice cream cone, some nice fresh cold water, a cheap postcard, a siamese cat in a storefront...

I´m going to head off now and see if I can find some interesting seafood. It´s past time for dinner to start and I´ve been here a long time, as usual. There´s some nice jazz coming from next door, maybe I´ll check that out. I´ve got a series of small towns coming up now, but I´ll try to post again as soon as possible. Adeus!

Posted by Alyssa at 12:49 PM
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September 15, 2002

Hola otra vez de buena España! I know, the Spanish is going to get old. I can´t help it. I´m even starting to talk to myself in Spanish now, and it´s starting to come more easily. I always had trouble with the multipes of 10 numbers for some reason, 30, 40, 50...now I´m able to say ´¿Cinco y cuarenta para la pendiente?´ Whether I ask for the right item is still up in the air, but I get the cost right. And I haven´t ended up with a big plate of veal when I wanted octopus, yet. So I´m doing ok.

When we last left our travelling girl... I finished out my last day in San Sebastián with a little shopping, an unsatisfying menú del dia, some beach time, and dinner in Parte Viejo. I went down to the beach at around 4:30, which is actually a pretty good time to go. It´s not the extra-crispy sun time but the sun is still pretty strong and the water´s usually at the peak of its warming up, right before it starts to get very cold. I got to know the bahía pretty well. I enjoyed my swim time, swam out to the buoys sectioning off the swimming area from the fishing boats and slowly swam back in with the waves. I sat on the beach and read my book, which I feared I would finish by the end of the day.

Went down again to the beach for sunset; walked along the port wall and watched the light drain from the sky and new lights appear on the water. I looked at my watch and it was nearly 9. Normally around 9 I´m starting to think about dinner, the unofficial start time for the evening meal in Spain. But it was 9-11, and 9:00 I remembered meant 12 in the US, and the minute of silence. So I waited by the rail, looking over the water, thinking about how peaceful it seemed. When I heard the Cathedral bells strike 9, I stood and thought about where I, where everyone, had been at that time last year. Remembered the horrors and the tears and the intense feelings and the families and the victims. I took more than a minute. Then I turned and walked to Parte Viejo, glad to be alive and there in that beautiful town.

I wandered around Parte Viejo for about an hour, going up and down streets I hadn´t seen the last time I was there. There were a lot of cool stores and I started to regret my decision to leave San Sebastián in the morning. I wanted more time to explore. Eventually I ended up at the same plaça I´d eaten in before, but went to another pintxos bar there, to try some new things. I got a pimiento relleno (not quite the same as a chile relleno in the US) and pescado del pastel, basically fish mixed with something else like cream cheese or something and on bread. I also asked for sangria and got a full 16 oz glass full of it. Mmmm, sangria...

Walked back to my room, not particularly unsteadily--the sangria wasn´t that strong, along the bay again. The moon, which was in crescent and had been small and white earlier, had become very large and yellow and low over the city across the bahía. It was beautiful.

As I walked, I noticed the lights from the walk over the bahía were making the water glow green and translucent. I watched as fish swam under the water, large and small. I´d known I was swimming with the fishes all this time, I´d seen a few very small ones in the surf while walking on the beach in the mornings. But I hadn´t quite realized how many. Apparently they stay away from swimmers, as I never had an encounter with one.

Got back to my room and was still vacillating about whether to leave in the morning. It was a hard decision. But I sort of felt I´d gotten what I wanted out of San Sebastián and was ready to move on. I decided to delay all decisions to the morning.

I woke up in the morning and lay in bed for probably 30 minutes, trying to decide what to do. As it is wont to do, the decision finally hit me that I should go. I usually go through this with all decent sized decisions, think think think think, until I don´t know if I can think any more, then the decision hits me and I feel great. Which I did. I got up, packed up, then went out for one last beach stroll.

I left San Sebastián on the 1:30 bus for Bilbao. It´s only about an hour and a half by bus and you can´t get there by train. It´s one of those oddities. There´s actually a train that goes from Bilbao to San Sebastián apparently, but it takes something like 5 hours. Hard to imagine. Anyway, the bus was fine, as it turned out. It was kind of entertaining to see Spain from an actual road, see the way their freeways work--lots of toll stops and tunnels, see the view from higher up.

I arrived in Bilbao mid afternoon and went to the pensión I´d lined up over the phone from the bus station. It was on a little street and the stairs were dark wood with bannisters that swayed as I walked up holding them. The owner only spoke Spanish, but was patient with me. The room was small but clean and had a window that looked out on the laundry the owner had hung out to dry.

I walked out to go to the Museo Vasco, the Basque Museum that was nearby. I was saving the Guggenheim, really the only reason to come to Bilbao, for the following full day. I didn´t want to be rushed. I spent a lot of time in the museum in an exhibition about the Basques relationship with music, how they recorded their history and kept their language alive through music. It was pretty interesting, though almost exclusively in Spanish. I found two parts of the exhibit that had English sections and gleaned most of my info from that.

The Basques seem to have a relationship with Spain similar to the Irish with England. They don´t really want to be a part of the country, but at the same time haven´t figured out how to extricate themselves. And not everyone wants to extricate themselves. I saw a lot of Basque nationalism signs and graffiti in Bilbao, which is much more like a big city than San Sebastián, with I think younger more politically motivated people. I can see how it would be hard to get agitated about anything in San Sebastián.

After the museum, I wandered around a bit, visited the TI and got some maps. On my walk, I noticed a sign for a musical I thought I might like to see, showing at the Teatre Arriaga. Cuando Harry encontró a Sally. Yes, a musical version of the movie When Harry Met Sally in spanish. I just laughed at first. Then I thought, if ever there was a show I might be able to understand, it would be this. I know the movie like the back of my hand, well, better really as I´ve spent more time watching Harry/Sally than I do watching the back of my hand. I´m not really a hand watcher. So I figured, I know it´s a musical, but if they stay reasonably close to the story line, I could probaby follow along. So I found out at the TI how to get tickets and walked over to the Teatre Arriaga and bought a cheap seat for the show that night.

Next I walked to a bookstore with books in English across the river. I found the store and paid through the nose for ¨Possession¨by A.S. Byatt. It was one of the thickest books I could find that I thought would be interesting. When you´re travelling, thicker is better.

On my way back, I noticed all the beggars. It was similar to San Francisco--lots of young, smelly, dredlocked kids begging for money. Sometimes they were playing recorders and such to try to earn the money a bit, or selling things. The city is also very dirty. It had more of a city feel to it than even Barcelona, I think, because Barcelona is much more packed with tourists. Bilbao just seemed like any old city, like New York or Chicago.

I went back to my room and changed into my one nice-ish dress I brought, a sort of spanishy black light weight dress with no sleeves. I took my hair down and put on lipstick. Oh, yes. For those wondering, the lipstick went out the window after about day 2. I got sick of the strap of my bag sliding over my lips inadvertantly when taking it on and off then staining my shirt. Plus it just didn´t seem necessary. Yes, I am au natural.

I went to the show and had a very good time. I think the show probably wasn´t actually that good. But it´s hard to tell in another language. The theater was beautiful, lush reds and pinks and an ornate ceiling and a chandelier in the lobby. The show did stick pretty close to the movie, so I followed the plot and even quite a bit of the dialogue. I didn´t understand the songs at all, as expected, but enjoyed them for the most part. There was a particularly odd one toward the beginning, during which Sally is describing the fabulous life she hopes to have in New York. I suspect I might have been offended by the stereotyping of Americans (boy, that would be funny) if I´d really understood what they were saying. But their voices were very good and they danced well and had good chemistry. I even laughed in several places, understanding well enough to do so. It was fun to get dressed up and go out, something I don´t do often enough even in SF.

The next day was the Guggenheim. I walked over there along the river, looking at the cool pedestrian bridge along the way, and some sculptures. Then I saw the antenae-like stone structures rising up. Then behind them some odd metal curves. Then I was looking at the Guggenheim. I felt like you feel when you first see the Golden Gate Bridge or the Statue of Liberty--something you´ve been anticipating for a long time.

It´s a hard building to describe--once again I recommend you find a website or wait for pictures. But it´s all metal curves and glass and white curves inside and cream colored marbley stone. There´s a pond in back where every hour or so fog comes out from under a bridge and sweeps over the pond, a cold real feeling fog, which is a japanese art piece. It´s quite large and very cool. Out front is an installation/scupture by Jeff Koons called ¨Puppy¨which is easily 20-30 feet tall and shaped like a puppy, made out of flowering plants. Puppy was in bloom.

Inside is all modern and abstract art. One room has particularly odd abstract art pieces made with odd materials, like strips of felt piled seemingly haphazardly on top of each other. There´s a rather cool iron sculpture that snakes down the middle of the room, called ¨Snake¨that you can walk through, it has two walk ways through it. There was a piece I just loved on the first floor, in an alcove, which was made up of nine strips going from floor to ceiling with space to walk through in between each with LED lights in red on one side and blue on the other. Each strip had words going up it at the same time, the same words on each strip at different intervals, a poem about obsessive love, in several different languages. I think it was in Spanish, English, and Euskara--the basque language, but I´m not absolutely sure. The first two certainly. You could see the lights reflected on the smooth walls and ceiling of the dark alcove, which was at least 2 stories tall.

There was a Kandinsky exhibit and an exhibit of Wim Wenders´photographs on the 3rd floor. The 2nd floor was closed. I loved the photographs and, though I´m not much of a Kandinsky fan, I enjoyed that exhibit as well.

I spent about 4 hours at the Guggenheim, wandering, gawking, experiencing. They don´t allow photography inside, they actually seal your camera in a plastic bag while you´re there, but they didn´t know I had my camera. It´s so small... I was pretty good though. I took a picture while walking through ¨Snake¨ and one of a reflection in the ladies room and a couple of the LED installation. And then, of course, I took many many from outside. I walked all around the building, admiringly.

Believe it or not, I went after there to the Museu de Bellas Artes and wandered around there for awhile. Admittedly, it did start to feel like a lot of museum time, but there´s not much else to see in Bilbao. The museum was filled with almost exclusively Spanish art through the centuries and was actually pretty interesting. I expecially liked their more modern works.

I walked home after that, grabbed a bocadillo along the way, and ate in my room. Went to an internet cafe and emailed and instant messaged with my family and my co-worker Teresa. Then I went home. The art had worn me out. And I had a very early train the next day.

I took the 9:25 train the next morning, which meant I had to get up at 7:30 which is early for me these days, to Santiago de Compostela. It´s an almost 11 hour train ride but I was ready to go. Santiago is in Galicia, the northwest part of Spain, and I´d been wanting to see it for awhile. Galicia is celtic influenced, due to their stopping here for a long time at one point in early history on their way to Ireland. Or so Let´s Go tells me.

The train ride was pretty cool, though definitely long. There´s some beautiful land between Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela. Big craggy mountains. Lush green hills and trees. Rivers. And once we got to Galicia, lovely gray mountains with solitary trees spread here and there across the top, and fog floating over. Let´s Go purports that Galicia is considered magical due to its celtic influence and misty hills.

Nearly the first thing I saw when coming from the train station in Santiago de Compostela was a condom machine. That´s pretty much it--Santiago seems to be a study in contrasts. They have the obviously religious thing.

Santiago de Compostela is the end point in a month-long pilgrimage the faithful make starting in France. They walk across Spain to Santiago, carrying back packs and walking sticks, covered in scallop shells they pick up as signs of the pilgrimage. When they arrive, they´re greeted by an enormous cathedral with four different facades and, these days, trinket hockers and street performers in the plazas surrounding it. Inside is a cathedral filled with dozens of small altars? sacristies? I´m not catholic, I´m sorry I don´t know all the right words. Then one enormous gold altar in the center of it all. Just excessively gold everywhere on the altar. Apparently they whitewashed it when being invaded by someone in the past, the visigoths maybe, to keep it intact.

Then there´s the celtic influence--stores everywhere sell celtic symbols in the form of jewelry, magnets, etc. right next to rosaries and holy water holders (yes, sorry, still not catholic). There are witches, dolls and pictures and such, for sale everywhere as well. The brujúa (Galega spelling) seems to be a big figure here.

Then there´s the sex. Sex seems to be sort of pervasive, in an odd way. There was the condom machine. Then there´s a figure of Atlas on the top of a University building--legend has it that if a female student graduates with her virginity intact then Atlas will drop his globe on her. And I saw a shirt in a store front today, while looking at the religious things for sale and jewelry, which had a naked female alien bent over and a naked male alien behind her doing what would be expected in such a situation. I couldn´t tell what the shirt said in Spanish, but I didn´t feel I really needed to. It´s a very odd mix here.

Well, I have a lovely room. I asked for one with windows and the man, who happily spoke english, gave me a corner room with big french windows, one of which looks out onto part of the cathedral. I woke up this morning and looked out at the sun hitting the clock tower of the cathedral. I was even able to hang my laundry in the other set of windows.

My first experience with the Cathedral was a bit daunting. When I came into town, it was raining lightly. It had stopped by the time I went back out, shortly after arriving, maybe 9:00, to look at the town. I walked over and looked at the cathedral by the evening lights. I wandered around it in my usual awe, taking pictures and admiring. As I stood looking, it started to thunder. A bad sign, I thought. I´ll be struck down. The infidel dares show her face and camera...

I was not struck down, and today went to look at the Cathedral more thoroughly. When I arrived in the Plaza on the South side, the bells were ringing, somewhat cacophonously, bells everywhere. Then a man with marrionettes started up his music, and started his puppets dancing. As I listened to the cathedral bells (which incidentally were bells made or stolen by the Moors who forced Christians to carry them on their backs down south, then when the Christians took back the land, they forced the Moors to carry them back to Santiago), I heard bells mixed with the strains of a celtic flute version of ¨Fernando¨by ABBA.

It happens that my first full day in Santiago is a Sunday and when I arrived around noon there was a full Mass going on. I wandered in and took some pictures (yes, still waiting to be struck down) and listened to the singing. Eventually I´d taken all the pictures I could with the crowd inside and started to try to exit. Except there was no exit. They were blocked by hordes of tourists and worshippers. I was stuck. I sat at the base of a pillar and wrote in my journal for most of the Mass. I watched as they gave communion, suspecting that might be very near the end. I got up and wandered closer to the exit, which was also closer to the front.

As I got close, I noticed them bringing out something big and silver. It turned out to be the Botafumeiro, an absolutely enormous incense burner they use during the bigger Masses. It took two men to carry it on a rod up to the altar. It took maybe 5 men to hoist it up on rope. Then those men began to swing it. With the incense flames burning inside, the incense burner swung perpendicular to the altar, ever higher, over the heads of worshippers on both side. It swung very fast, and seemed to be just over people´s heads, as if it might touch their hair, and clouds of incense billowed out of it. It was something to see. I was stunned.

After the Mass was over, I wandered around inside taking pictures and discovered a line. Ever one to assume that if people are lined up, it´s probably for something good, I got in line as well. It turned out the line led up behind the altar, to Santiago himself. The first Santiago you encounter is a bust of him, in gold. He faces out, toward the crowd, but you come up behind him. It´s a little room only big enough for you, the one or two people in front of you, and a priest who´s sitting in the back taking donations and handing out cards of Santiago. The man two people in front of me kissed Santiago and spoke to him in Spanish. The woman in front of me, who was English, touched him. I took a picture. And eyed him. I looked at the priest and he said something in Spanish. I only caught the word ¨traditional¨. The priest stood up and said it again, then put his arms around Santiago at his shoulders. I nodded. What was I to do? I gave Santiago a hug. It felt kind of good. I gave the priest a euro and took a card.

The second Santiago you see is the silver coffer holding his remains, down below the altar. I looked and filed on by, as others kneeled before him and held each other.

I finished my survey of the Cathedral then walked around it to see all the facades. Then I wandered around the city, looking at shops with religious trinkets. I ate an ok menú del dia, I think I may be about to swear off them, but had some nice Sopa de mariscos (seafood soup). Then I felt I needed a rest and returned to my room. I read for a bit, looked at the cathedral out my window. Then walked out again an hour or so later and wandered the streets and shops again until I ended up here.

I´ll stay one more day, I hear there´s a good contemporary art museum here or I might go on a daytrip somewhere, then it´s off to Portugal. I read all about Portugal on my 11 hour train ride so I´m pretty excited. Lots more to see. I´m in day 10 now, 20 more to go. I think I´m doing ok. I´m certainly having a great time. If you want to email me or make comments, I´m obviously checking my email periodically. All are welcome. Hasta luego!

Posted by Alyssa at 01:30 PM
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September 11, 2002

Hola from España! Sorry it´s taken me so long, but I lost a huge long posting I wrote due to a mysterious computer error. Computer time is expensive, here, as is my time, so I didn´t have the strength to reproduce it on the spot. But here I am, now with several more days to describe, so I´ll settle in.

I arrived less than a week ago, on Thursday the 5th, in the Barcelona airport. The flights were fine, but I was tired and a little bewildered. I´d managed to sleep quite a bit, but it´s interesting what 17 hours in airports and on planes, watching bad Jennifer Lopez movies, sleeping upright, eating bad airplane food (and vegan at that--there was no pescatarian option when I signed up), and dealing with various foreign airports will do to you. For me, it´s something like PMS. Let´s leave it at that.

So in my tired, over-emotional, cranky state, I searched the Barcelona airport, once I´d picked up my backpack, for an ATM, since I had no Euros, only about $12 in American cash. Unfortunately, the baggage area had no ATMS and there seemed to be no way to get back to the terminal I´d just left. I found a change machine, which was exactly that, a machine that changed foreign currency into other foreign currency. But it would take a minimum of $23. I found myself on the verge of tears, sitting by the change machine, wondering how I could get to Barcelona with no money, how I could call Barcelona to get a room with no money, how I could deal with Barcelona if I had no room and no money. It was a bad moment.

Ultimately, I decided to go through customs and just see what happened. Turned out, all I needed to do was slip through customs, that´s exactly what it was--no one blinked an eye at me, checked a passport, nothing--and on the other side of customs was a big entryway to the terminal, with ATMs galore and phones and a TI and everything. All was well. I got money, found the Aerobus into the city, even managed to ask the woman in front of me, in clear Spanish, if I needed exact change. She said something along the lines of no--I´m still a bit better at speaking than understanding--but I got the idea.

I arrived in Barcelona and the next hurdle was trying to call to get a room. I got off at the Plaça España and picked up a phone. Then I had to figure out how to pay, what to pay, where the coin went, what each coin amount was, whether I had to dial some numbers or all the numbers, etc. Spanish phones are not fun, and many of them aren´t working to begin with. Of course, that´s not much different than American payphones. But oh, was I missing my cellphone. Next time, I´m getting a global phone, no doubt about it. Anyway, every place I called was booked, though most of them spoke English, which helped. I finally decided to just go to a place which had promised they could find me someplace to sleep when I´d called from America. So I headed for the Metro.

The Metro to me is the least confusing of all Barcelona things I had to deal with. The Metro is easy--as they´re pretty much the same as every other city with a Metro, including SF. The great thing about Barcelona is the trains come every two minutes, approximately. It´s amazing, you never have to wait 45 minutes for the N Judah in the Powell Street station at 8 p.m. like I have done innumerable times. So I got to Las Ramblas, where the Hostal I was looking for was and found the place. It was booked, and no sign of the helpful woman from the phone. The young men sent me down the street to some other places. After several more failures, I found a place, Pensión Dalí, which had an expensive room, but it was a room. I took it. Cost me 29 euros, quite a bit more than I´d been meaning to spend. The room was brown with yellow fluorescent lights, not very pleasant. It did have a TV though, which I thought might be interesting. And it had a tiny little balcony where you couldn´t really stand out on it, but you could look out and get some breeze, as well as noise. I needed the breeze more than I disliked the noise. If anyone told you Spain isn´t hot in September, it might have been me, they lied.

I showered and changed and wandered out onto Las Ramblas to get some dinner and try to give my parents a call to tell them I was alive and well. Unfortunately, I couldn´t for the life of me figure out how to use the American calling card I had. It was 10 times more confusing than trying to call locally. So I wandered up the street and found an internet cafe and emailed everyone to say I was fine, though cranky. Frankly, Barcelona was not working for me, in many senses of the phrase. It was crowded, hot, filled with tourists (of which I am one, I know) and all the hostels were full or trying to bilk me. I made up my mind to try to go somewhere else in the morning.

I left the cafe and wandered down Las Ramblas looking for food. Every place I saw was either too expensive and clearly for tourists or seemed to difficult in my fragile state. I ended up eating at a chain sandwich store called Pans and Company (yes, written in English like that), and had a bocadillo--a spanish sandwich, which I actually like quite a bit. I´ve had about 10 of them since I arrived. I got one with Atún (tuna) and lechuga (lettuce). They serve them on small baguettes, like french Casse croute (my French spelling´s worse than my Spanish), and they´re very tasty. So I was relatively satisfied and went back to my room. I got in bed and looked through my guidebook for a bit, watching the end of Men In Black dubbed in Spanish, then a bit of Alien 3 dubbed in Spanish before the jetlag caught up with me and I just passed out.

I woke up in the morning to a Spanish cartoon which had the look of a Pokemon cartoon but was about soccer playing kids. I had no idea what they were saying. I packed up and wandered off to find a new hostel or to leave town, I wasn´t sure which. I had bought a phone card the night before, but the man had given me one with an access number rather than one that you stick in the phone. I managed to use it once, to call a place in Barcelona that said they were full, then the operator decided to refuse to recognize my access number. After some creative swearing, that card became a bookmark. I used coins to call a few more places, at which no one would admit to speaking any English at all and seemed to have a hard time understanding me or speaking slowly enough for me to understand them, except I got that they were all full. Finally, on the verge of tears again, I bought a new phone card and tried one more time. I called Figueres, a town about 1 1/2 hours outside of Barcelona, and the woman there was very very nice and, in fairly easy spanish, told me to come, that she had space. I was so grateful.

I had a bocadillo at a tourist restaurant off Las Ramblas then headed for the train station. I got my train with no problem, and breathed a sigh of relief when I arrived in Figueres. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. A very cute little town, with no crowds, and charming stone streets and cool buildings along them. It was very hot, of course, and I carried my bag up streets trying to find my Pensión. I asked for directions from a young woman in a cafe and together she and the owner woman got a map, found the street, and the young woman came around the counter and outside to point me in the right direction. It was like people from the big city say it´s like going to the Midwest, where everyone´s very nice and in no rush, willing to help. Mind you, my experience of the Midwest isn´t always that, but it´s a good analogy.

I found my Pensión and the woman was very nice, gave me my little single room, which was small but cozy with a window that opened onto a shaft with a skylight kind of thing at the top of it. I immediately took a siesta. I got up in early evening and wandered around the streets as the sun was starting to set. I followed signs for the Teatre-Museu Dalí, which was the reason I´d come to Figueres, and it turned out to be about a block away from my pensión. The Dalí museum is hard to describe. From the outside it´s pink and covered with eggs. The story is that Figueres, Dalí´s home town, asked him for a painting. He was so honored by the request that he gave them a whole museum instead. The plaça around the museum has statues done by him or for him, the side of the building has a particularly odd installation with his huge head with TVs in the eyesockets, and that sort of thing. Just walking around the outside was great.

I walked up the hill from the museum and saw the sunset over the hills of the countryside. I wandered around the big cool church that is right next door to the Dalí museum, taking a few discrete pictures inside, away from where a service was going on. I kept wandering the streets, looking for a restaurant that had been listed in my Let´s Go, but Figueres isn´t big enough to warrant a map in Let´s Go so I had some trouble finding it. After getting myself lost, I eventually stumbled on my Pensión again, and a few blocks from there found a restaurant that was also in my Let´s Go, but I hadn´t intended to eat in because it´s Argentinian. My feet hurt and I was hungry at that point so I went ahead in. It was the first time I´d actually gone in a real restaurant, I´d been a little nervous about dealing with the strangeness of a Spanish restaurant, not knowing the right words, ending up with a pile of meat, that sort of thing. But I went in and while it was ostensibly Argentinian, they had a lot of pizzas. I got one with anchovies and olives on it and it was lovely. I was proud of myself for leaping that hurdle.

The next day I went to the museum and it´s much to hard to describe. Briefly, the first thing you see when you come in is a circular courtyard in the middle of the several stories high building. In the middle of the courtyard is Dalí´s own Cadillac, probably from the 50´s or 60´s, shiny black, with a statue of a woman on it, of course it´s not just a woman, but she´s hard to describe. Inside the Caddy is a figure who might be meant to be Dalí, I´m not sure, and a lot of vines in the back seat. All around the Caddy along the walls are vines. There´s another statue on the back of the Caddy with a boat on top of it. The walls of the courtyard are covered in windows and in each of the windows is an almost identical statue of a person, but each is slightly different. And on the far side of the courtyard is a huge stories high window which shows you the next room you are supposed to go to, and you see a huge Dalí painting through the window. That room has a coin operated sculpture, a painting of Dalí´s wife Gala which turns into Abraham Lincoln if you look at it through a telescope they have available for a euro, and Dalí´s completely unmarked tomb in the middle of the floor. As you go through the museum you see innumerable drawings, paintings, Christmas cards he did, ads he did, the Mae West room--which is made up of furniture meant to be parts of Mae West´s face which when viewed from a camel overlook at the back of the room transforms fully into the woman, holograms, pictures that turn into other pictures when you look at the reflection in a bottle that´s been placed at the top of them...There´s just so much. It was the first time I´ve left a museum and instead of being gratified that I´ve seen everything, I was disappointed that there wasn´t more to see.

After the museum, I schlepped up a hill in the midday heat, to see the Castell de Sant Ferran, an old, largely disshevelled castel up at the top of the hill above Figueres which was supposed to have nice views. I got up there and started wandering around the place. Aside from a wedding that was going on, I was one of only a few people up there and it was kind of a nice feeling. I was alone most of the time I was walking around, no one in view. It was nice and a little eerie at times, and the view was great. There was a wonderful moment when I was walking through the catacombs or dungeon below the castle. It was cool down there, away from the sun, and it was this long area with arches all down it, slightly lit along the way. And through a speaker in a room off the main area they were playing classical music. So I was walking alone through this cool, stone walkway with classical music echoing along off the walls. It was one of those perfect travelling moments you get. I think it was my first one, where everything just feels exactly as it should. I´ve had several more since, but you never forget your first.

That night I found the restaurant I´d been looking for the previous night, thanks to a map I got at the TI, and with a deep breath went into the mostly empty restaurant. They were playing Spanish pop music videos and there was an old man, who I think was the owner and grandfather, dancing around with a little girl who must have been about 2. The place was called La Llesca and specialized in a sandwich of the region called a llesca. When the woman brought it to me, she asked if I knew what to do with it, which I had no idea. It was not what I´d expected. It was a very large piece of toasted bread, some toppings--in my case anchovies and sheep´s cheese (I´ve eaten a lot of anchovies since I got here), and a bowl holding two whole tomatoes and a couple of cloves of raw garlic. The woman cut one of the tomatoes in half and started spreading the juice, pulp, and seeds on the bread. I got the idea. I cut off pieces of the toast, covered it in tomato innards, put some anchovy and cheese on it, and ate it. It was very good and simple. I was a little afraid of the raw garlic, so stayed away. I also had a copa de marqués, a little more expensive than the house wine, hoping it would be a little better. It was ok, not fabulous, but it felt nice--the strange good food and the wine. When I left, the grandfather called after me,¨Adios, bonita!¨

As I left, I saw it had started to rain, big drops. It was still warm out, so it was like one of those summer midwestern rains I miss sometimes. It started to rain a little harder after a few blocks, and though I didn´t mind, I worried about the waterproofness of my daybag so I went into a café. I ordered Orxata which wasn´t as good as Mexican Horchata, but still pretty tasty. It had started to thunder and lightning and I was really enjoying the rain. After a bit I went back to my room, where I could still hear the rain and thunder and read through my guidebooks about where I would go next.

The next day I took the train back to Barcelona, stowed my big backpack at the train station in a locker, bought a ticket to San Sebastián on the night train, and headed into Barcelona to go see La Sagrada Familia. I had missed it the last time I was in Barcelona, in ´95, and was determined to get a look at it. It´s this enormous, elaborate church started in the late 1800´s by Gaudí, a local architect/artist. It´s still to this day under construction, using Gaudí´s original plans. It´s really stunning and impossible to describe. It´s so elaborate. I recommend doing a search for it on the internet to get a look. Or wait for my pictures, of which there are plenty. I even went up to the top of the towers and got the greatest view of the city. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the bottom of the stairs, there are a lot of stairs and they spiral down very narrowly, my legs were spaghetti. I could barely walk. So I sat down and looked at the church for awhile. Then I went down into the museum where I found a nice airconditioned film with comfy seats where I sat through the end of a Spanish version of the history of La Sagrada Familia and the entire English version. I felt much better after, and of course, well-informed.

Mission accomplished, I Metro-ed over to Las Ramblas to find a travel store, I was having some converter problems which I´ve since solved, but had no luck. Instead I ended up at the internet café there again and that´s when I lost my last post. So we´re up to that date now. My, this is costing me a bundle. Hope you´re enjoying it.

Then it was off to the train station, reclaimed my backpack, got on my train, and it turned out the man had sold me a sleeper car ticket. I will be more specific when I ask for a billete next time. Still, it was actually very nice. I got to sleep pretty well and shared a cabin with some Spanish girls who spoke so quickly and giggly that I didn´t have a chance to tell them I had no idea what they were saying.

I arrived in San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) early in the morning the following day, around 8 a.m., and felt pretty well-rested, though I´d probably only gotten about 5 or 6 hours of good sleep. I stepped out of the station and started into town and was just awed. I had to cross a bridge across a river to get into the town and the bridge was beautiful and big and ornate. The river was lovely and lined with buildings out of a movie about a European city. It was just stunning. And the sun was just finishing coming up so the clouds were still pinkish over the buildings. And as I walked, I saw the steeple of the Cathedral bathed in gold morning light shining between the buildings. It was absolutely gorgeous. I walked along, admiring the Cathedral which is huge, and just loving San Sebastián. I got to my Pensión, the woman had told me to come as it was tranquilo and there would be no problem with a room, and the room was really cute, small, but very European, with a great terrace behind double glass doors with a clothesline already there with clothespins. You have to be a traveller to understand how exciting that is.

I immediately took a shower, washed some clothes and hung them out, figured out where I wanted to go, and headed out into the streets. It was about 9:30. It was still cool out and traffic had started with a vengeance, as it was a Monday. The Spanish both drive and walk very very fast, especially in San Sebastián. I wandered through the streets, going into a few stores which eventually solved my converter problem, then headed to the beach. I think I´ve used up all my superlatives about San Sebastián already, but once again--it was just stunning. The beach is a big curve, Playa de la Concha, along the Bahía de la Concha (bay of the conch I think), and I walked all along it and over to the other beach, Playa de Ondarreta. The water was nice and not too cold, the beach was lovely fine sand, and there were tons of old crispy brown men and women walking along as well.

One of the things I love about it here is that maybe half the people on the beach are young and attractive or kids. The other half are older people, some very white, most somewhat unnaturally brown, in their swimsuits, walking along with no self-consciousness, some middle-aged men with lots of hair, in speedos with gold chains around their necks (you thought that was a myth? Oh, no, I can tell you...). And there are a lot of women in bikinis, some in half a bikini, many of whom in America would never have the guts to wear a bikini. There are women with potbellies, pregnant women, just overall round women, all just putting it out there. I love it. I wish I had the same guts, but no, you will never see me on the beach in less than a one piece. They just all look so comfortable with themselves. And the only ones who get a second look are the pregnant ones. And those looks are mostly smiles.

I finished my beach walk, during which I picked up a few stones for you Teresa, and realized I was at the base of Monte Igueldo--which I´d read had a funicular that went up to the top and was supposed to have a wonderful view and a small amusement park at the top. So I took the Funikular up, an old wooden thing that creaked a litte, and got off to see the gorgeous view at the top. You could see the entire bay. Then I went to the top of the tower that´s on top of the mountain. A full 360 degree fantastic view of everything. So gorgeous.

I left Igueldo and walked down the beach back toward my pensión, stopping to look at Palacio Miramar, where Queen Isabella used to stay when she was in town. Then I went back to my room, quickly changed into my swimsuit, and went back to the beach for a swim. The water was so fantastic, cool but not cold, with lots of really warm spots. And the sea is so salty that I could just stand upright with my arms out and float and bounce over waves. Just spectacular. That night I went to Parte Viejo, the old part of town, where I ended up when I was taking pictures of the sunset and noticed an old carousel. the carousel was very cool, from the 1900´s. I didn´t ride it, tho, as there were too many kids to make me feel quite bold enough. I followed the port to the end, taking pictures of the sunset which ended with the sun as a big red ball just next to Isla Santa Clara, in the middle of the bay. Then I wandered into Parte Viejo, the real part of the town, which immediately reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans. It was less filled with drunken college kids, but it had the same feel, narrow stone streets, neon signs for bars (though here they were pintxos (tapas) bars), and tourist shops. Then I was looking down one side street and the end of the street was filled with a brightly lit old ornate churchfront. I was stunned. My Let´s Go annoyingly didn´t mention this town had any churches of note, so each time I´ve seen these fabulous structures I´ve been in awe. This one was so out of the way, it was surprising. I had to sit down and just stare. Carved stone and statues and it was just huge.

I continued in, looking for a pintxos bar from my guidebook, which turned out to be closed. But I found a Plaça where there were several restaurants with terraces and pintxos that were reasonably affordable so I sat down at one. The night was cool but not cold. I sat outside and ordered my pintxos which were all just fantastically good. I had shrimp and calamares and smoked salmon and octopus. I also had sidra, a specialty up here which they pour from one arm up high into a glass down low to aerate it and you´re supposed to drink it down quickly while it´s still fizzy. It´s a little more bitter than the cider I drink normally, but very good. I also had txakoli, a local fizzy white wine that tastes a little like champagne but a little stronger. Also very good. I listened to the Spanish version of mariachis who were playing near us for a bit (tambourine, accordian, and a keyboard on a strap). There were people walking in and out, an English fellow explaining theories on marriage and divorce, a dog running around amidst the tables, and just general merriment. It was a very nice night, a great cap to a very nice day. It was one of those perfect days, something I hadn´t had in a long time.

Yesterday I spent the entire day on the beach, pretty much. Went down in the morning and swam in very cold water then sat on the beach and read. Went back to my room to clean up and change then went back to a beachside restaurant to treat myself to a nice menú del dia. Unfortunately the food wasn´t very good. Great helado (ice cream) though. I don´t know how they make it differently, but it was great. Then back to my room to change into my swimsuit and back to swim again in slightly less cold water and sit on the beach again and read. Last night I went to check on the train to Bilbao, where I´ll go tomorrow, but there´s no train, just a bus. So I have to check that out today. Then I ended up here, at Netline, where I emailed my parents but didn´t have time to post. The nice man at the counter didn´t kick me out when he needed to close and I was trying to finish my emailing. When I paid, he told me my Spanish was very good, which thrilled me to no end. I know it´s getting better, but I´m not so sure about good. Then I went back to the beach and ate at a beachside cafe where they served, amongst other things, sandwiches.

I ordered a Vegetal sandwich, which turned out to be very good, but odd. First of all, vegetal apparently includes tuna. Then when it comes, it´s three pieces of toasted wheat bread, with lettuce and tomato in one layer, tuna and egg in the other layer, and some mayonaise swirled on the top of top piece of bread. Good mayo, but on the outside. It was very interesting, a little messy, but very good. I also had a cerveza. And I looked at the lights on the bay as I looked over the beach. Nice night again.

Today has been shopping so far. I need a tank top, something I almost brought but didn´t but now I want of course. And I bought some postcards and ultimately ended up back here while I wait for a shop to download my memory cards from my camera onto CD. Yes, it´s techno travelling. As you can tell, I´m having a great time. I can´t wait to show you all my photos. I´ve really hit the travelling mode, where getting places seems like no trouble, just part of the experience, and where every place seems more beautiful and interesting than the last. Still, I love San Sebastián. I think I´ll retire here. Once I make some money. Small issue. Ah well. Time to go back to the beach, I´ve been here long enough. Hasta luego.


Posted by Alyssa at 04:59 AM
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