Stage Three: Going Deeper

As I rapidly approach the end of my time in Spain, I can see that looking back my time here has fallen into three stages, each distinct and with its own challenges, triumphs, and small miracles.

Stage One: Crash Landing

On the day trip to San Sebastian, I ended up with three random girls - Lea from Austria, Cynthia from Germany, and Ida from Finland. The first two later became two of my best friends here in Spain.

From the time I arrived in Pamplona in August and had to spend the night at the bus station, to perhaps as late as the end of September, I was getting my bearings. Every day brought a new challenge, and while I took a few day trips to nearby cities, most of my energy was spent trying to figure out this new world I’d been placed in, whether that meant Spain in general, Pamplona and UNAV specifically, or even the entire Erasmus situation. In the first weeks, I didn’t know how to get an ID card or use the school’s WIFI or library. I carried a map just to get across town. I had no idea who my friends were going to be or what classes I was going to be in. The world around me was a giant swirling chaos that I was trying to make sense of, one element at the time – the months ahead, a blank state filled with dizzying potential and a bit of fear. I felt tired a lot during this period, and nervous, and stupid. Sometimes I even felt angry. I didn’t really feel homesick, though – I was too busy for that, and everything was still so new that even when it was frustrating or frightening it was terribly exciting. Hardly a day passed where I didn’t, at different times, feel that I could do nothing right, and that I could take over the world single-handedly.

Stage Two: Far and Away

I spent some amazing days in Galicia with Sara and Colleen. Very rainy, a little stressful, but amazing.

Then, everything changed. Suddenly all the important things had finally been settled, and I knew how to get by. I trusted myself to be able to figure things out and handle day to day activities competently. Classes were in full swing, but exams were still far off and I didn’t have any big projects yet. Spain – or, at least, Pamplona – was starting to feel like home. As summer turned to autumn, I began to look around me for activities to fill my new life. I joined Club de Montaña and went canyoning in Aragon, climbed a Pyrenean mountain, and hiked through the Selva de Irati. I visited a friend in Alicante, partied in Madrid, explored Asturias and Galicia, went surfing in France and saw a U2 concert in San Sebastian. This was certainly the most exciting part of my time in Spain, and to outward appearances my happiest. In reality, though, not every day was storied ex-pat bliss. Travelling is stressful, after all, and although every time I set off for a new adventure I was buzzing with excitement, there were always busses and hostels to coordinate, budgets to keep an eye on, and schoolwork to make up (or at least feel guilty for missing). The stress hit at funny times – some mornings I felt nervous for no reason, other times I fretted over how quickly time was going by, and, I admit it, at the midway point I even felt a little bit homesick. After the first weeks I became more aware at how time was continuing without me back home, that I was missing birthdays and holidays and entire seasons of real life.

Stage Three: Going Deeper

Safe at home is sometimes right where you want to be during a northern Spanish winter.

In early November, things changed again. Winter arrived and brought with it freezing temperatures and the approaching threat of final exams. A homing instinct kicked in and I stopped my boundless wandering and returned to Pamplona, more or less for good. These practical concerns were a blessing, though, because when I stopped moving around so often, I started going deeper into life at home.  A few of my Spanish contacts began to develop into something like friends, and my group of Erasmus friends became tighter and more familiar and comfortable. I learned how to cook regional specialities, I got a library card, I found some volunteer work at a nearby Basque high school. I took some short trips around Navarra, my home state, and was amazed anew at the variety and beauty tucked into such a small area. With a new sense of stability (not to mention a plane ticket in hand to go home for Christmas) the last traces of fear and uncertainty left. My life in Spain began to feel totally normal, even routine – and that – to watch a foreign country lose its foreignness – to see it become home – is a magical thing, a miracle – and it might even be the best argument for studying abroad.



In Bilbao, I went to a pintxo bar called Irrintzi. Like the names of many pintxo bars, to the newcomer to the Basque Country it looks like a mess of random letters, more like a random file name you typed out in a rush than a word with significance and meaning. Still, like most of them, it does actually have a meaning.

It’s basically a crazy, high pitched scream, serving the traditional purpose of calling throughout the mountains, like yodelling. Nowadays it’s often used by Basque as expressions of excitement, happiness, and emotion at fiestas and the like. Here’s a definition I particularly like, from – “The traditional Basque mountain cry, a ululation characterized by a rising pitch and concluded with a kind of demented laugh.”

Because real life has to add a darker and more complex tone to everything, Irrintzi has recently developed another meaning – it is the name of a new Basque terrorist group that works in France with the motto, “Euskal Herria ez dago salgai” – “The Basque Country is not for sale.”


Pass the - rubbery fish in tomato sauce? Not exactly my most traditional Thanksgiving meal to date!

Being away for Thanksgiving was a bit harder than being away for Halloween. Sure, I missed stuffing my face with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and dressing up with my friends, but Thanksgiving is more than a party and a sugar rush – it’s about pulling out cookbook’s with a years worth of dust on them, sitting in a circle pulling apart bread and painfully hot chicken by hand to make traditional Metheny stuffing, and playing Aggravation and Tripoli between mini-feasts.

On Facebook, my friends back home joke about how much turkey they’re going to eat and how much weight they’re going to gain, or count their blessings (sarcastically or in earnest).  Meanwhile all of my fellow American ex-pats have changed their Skype statuses to reflect their homesickness. Some of the international students are even putting on little Thanksgiving dinners in miniature – limited both by what they know how to cook themselves, and on available ingredients. 

As I told my sister, yes, I’m alone for Thanksgiving, but it’s not as if everyone around me is baking turkey and sweet potatoes and hugging relatives while I’m eating a turkey and gravy t.v. dinner. Life goes on as normal, and it helps. But it’s hard to ignore completely. The truth is I’m glad to spend only one fall abroad. The highlight of the day was talking to my family via Skype. They’re at Todd’s in St. Louis and it’s snowing there. Everyone took turns talking to me – Mom, Dad, Melissa, Uncle Bob and a barrage of cousins.  They even held up Tidbit for me to see/talk to… she could hear me calling her and was cocking her head back and forth – so confused about where the familiar voice could be coming from!

Ida from Finland tried to get into the Thanksgiving Spirit with this super-traditional Native American attire...

The International Office here held an event the day after Thanksgiving called “Spainsgiving”. A little cheesy, and confusing too – the meal had nothing to do with Thanksgiving whatsoever – not turkey, not green bean cassarole, not even pumpkin pie! Still, several of my friends signed up, so I went along too. The food was not terribly good, (although the chorizo appetizer was tasty), and the event as a whole was overpriced, but I guess it’s the thought that counts!

Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 16:44  Leave a Comment  

Churros y Chocolate

Churro with Orange Chocolate in Pontevedra, Galicia.

I had been looking forward to real Spanish churros for a long time. Deep fried, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and dipped in hot chocolate so thick it’s difficult to swallow – it seemed like the perfect recipe. Still, I’d tried similar things in the United States – stale tasting ‘churros’ at Disney World, Taco Bell’s “CinnaTwists”, etc… and I was eager to put aside for once and for all the creeping doubt that such a brilliant idea had been allowed to take only such pitiful forms.

I ate my first Spanish churros in Madrid – in the most traditional manner possible. After a night of partying, we jumped into a taxi and asked them to take us to Chocolatería San Ginés – one of the few restaurants open at 5 in the morning, and the traditional place to wind down for bed as the sun rises. The churros were good, I thought, better than any I’d had before – and dipping them into the hot chocolate was a brilliant and welcome decision.Still, I found myself wondering if San Ginés deserved its reputation as the best churros place – perhaps its mere popularity is a self-defeating prophecy, perhaps we simply came at a bad time, but the churros seemed a little bit limp and soggy to me. Anywhere else, I would have been quite happy with them – but were they really the best in Madrid – the best in Spain?

Sara and Colleen are extremely excited about these churros.

My next churros were in Pontevedra, Galicia. My friends and I were craving a real meal, but when we saw a sign advertising churros with hot white chocolate, we couldn’t refuse. The churros here were only decent, a little tough perhaps, but the chocolate was incredible – we ordered one big cup of white chocolate, and one of chocolate and orange, both so rich they seemed alcoholic. We didn’t leave before painstakingly swallowing every last drop.

I decided I liked these churro things, but the search for amazing ones – the ones that could truly embody my ideal of the recipe’s potential – was still on. You have to remember that I’m a Midwestern American girl, that Missouri leans towards the south when it comes to our carnival cuisine, and that I’ve always been a big fan of funnel cake and extra krispies to know where I’m coming from on this, and when I first saw the stand in Utebo, Aragon (near Zaragoza), I think I knew.

The Search for the Perfect Churros: Complete!

It was a greasy looking stand in the middle of nowhere – a playground in a suburb of Zaragoza. An unseasonably warm night was falling, and the fat man working there looked relaxed, his son bored. They were out of hot chocolate, but Lea and I were in a bit of a hurry anyway. We ordered one dozen churros, with sugar, and he squeezed the dough out fresh from a star-shaped nozzle into a vat of hot oil. A minute later we were headed towards the bus stop with a paper bag full of greasy, hot churros. The most American part of me was fantastically excited.

They were brilliant. They were crunchy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside without seeming undercooked, they were coated with the perfect amount of cinnamon and sugar, prickling my tongue just right, they were luxuriously greasy, but never crossed that line that makes me too aware of it, instead it was all one, beautiful product, impossible to tell where the pleasure coming off of one magical component ended and another began. Did I mention that they were hot? I ate the first three without coming up for air, and savoured my second half slowly as they started to cool in the night air. They were still amazing.

Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 12:25  Comments (2)  
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Winter is Here

We had a wonderful fall – bright leaves and lots of sunny, warm days. Then things started going downhill – for the last week there’s been nothing but rain and lower temperatures every day. Now at last we’ve turned the corner – Winter is here!

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Published in: on November 26, 2010 at 19:02  Leave a Comment  
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The Light on the Mountain

On the bus home from San Sebastian, Ainhoa told me stories about her family – about her grandfather, who would go up to spend nights on the mountain in a little txabola (shepherd’s hut). She said it seemed so cold and primitive that she couldn’t imagine sleeping there alone, but he always brought the dogs with him and he enjoyed it. He continued doing this even when Ainhoa was a little girl, and the family would watch from down in the valley for him to signal with his lantern that all was well – then they could close the window and sleep. One time, they didn’t see the lantern, so they were concerned and drove up to the mountain to find out what had happened – but the grandfather was just sleeping peacefully. Apparently they’d only missed the signal that night. 🙂

Published in: on November 25, 2010 at 16:45  Leave a Comment  

Seasons in Pamplona

“En Pamplona solo hay dos estaciones – de lluvia y de autobuses.” – Ainhoa

In Spanish, the same word, ‘estacion’, means both ‘season’ and ‘station’. This leads to Ainhoa’s nice little joke – “In Pamplona there are only two estaciones – the rainy estacion and the bus estacion.” 🙂

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 20:42  Leave a Comment  


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On a beautiful mid-November Saturday, my friend Lea and I headed southeast to Zaragoza, the capital of Navarra’s neighbor state of Aragon. Many of our friends had gone a few weeks earlier during the Fiesta de Pilar, but Lea had a visitor at the time and I was in Madrid, so it was just the two of us this time. As with Bilbao, we hadn’t heard glowing reviews of Zaragoza before coming. First, I was told that there wasn’t much to do there other than walk around and shop. When I confronted them with what I’d found out online – that Zaragoza has several world heritage sites and an amazing cathedral, they sighed and said, “Well, other than those, there’s not much to do.” – I guess some people can never be satisfied.

The Arabic Palace

Our first stop on arrival was la Aljafaria – Arabic for the House of Jaffar (a bit funny for those who grew up watching Disney’s Aladdin.) The palace is more than a thousand years old and is perhaps the best example of Islamic architecture from the period of the independent kingdoms in Spain, and is the only such building outside of Andalucia in the far south of Spain. Although it was altered several times – from Arabic palace to the royal residence of Catholic kings to a military base and even a hospital, it preserves much of the intricate Muslim decoration I hadn’t hoped to find so far north. The building seems to be all graceful arches, impossibly complex stone carvings and the play of sun and shadows. In keeping with it’s multi-purpose past, today the Aljafaria is not only a popular tourist destination, it also houses Aragon’s regional parliament.

Next, we took a walk through the streets of Zaragoza, where the first Christmas decorations had already been put  up. We wandered in vague search of some Asian cuisine, but somehow found ourselves at a pintxos bar instead – apparently Zaragoza is almost as well known for this close cousin to tapas as Pamplona and the Basque Country. Between the two of us, we managed to consume a total of 16 different pintxos, most of them quite tasty, although perhaps a bit heavy on mashed potatoes.

The Two Cathedrals

After lunch we made for the epicenter of Zaragoza’s attractions, the Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. As Mary is considered the patron saint of Spain, as well as all Hispanic people, a reflecting pool and a fountain on the western side combine to form a mirror like map of the Americas from Mexico down to Argentina – this is the Fuente de Hispanidad, or the Fountain of Hispanic Identity. The rest of the plaza is mostly empty, with plenty of room for the striking shadows of the churches that surround it on three sides. Two of these are cathedrals – la Seo, and the famous Basilica.

The Basilica is a huge building that dominates the view of Zaragoza for kilometers along the river. It is built in the Arab-influenced Mudejar style and includes brightly coloured domes. Inside, the ceilings are covered with frescoes by Francisco Goya, and you can see the pillar and image of Mary that she was said to give to St. James during her only apparition prior to her death. Equally miraculous is the church’s survival through the Spanish civil war – three bombs were dropped on it, but none of them exploded, and the basilica stands to this day.

Afternoon Wanderings

With Zaragoza’s most mandatory sites out of the way, both Lea and I had something in the area that sparked our curiosity. Lea wanted to see the sight of the Expo 2008, which was hosted by Zaragoza, while I wanted to hop a bus to neighboring Utebo to see another element of the Mudejar World Heritage Site, a lovely tower. We headed to the Expo first, as the sun was sinking fast and we needed light to see the old water park. The site of the Expo is in some disrepair, and looks like it hasn’t been touched since the day the party ended. Still, I didn’t regret the leisurely walk along the banks of the river to get there. Zaragoza may be the fifth most populous city in Spain, but it still didn’t feel too metropolitan – we passed a group of men fishing under the shadow of the cathedral, for example, and the lawns around the Expo are now a sort of park, where a few families were walking or picnicking. A piece of interpretive art nearby played strange music from some underwater world – remixed whale calls and flowing water, and we spent half an hour listening to it while lying on our backs looking up at the late afternoon sky.

We had just enough time before our bus ride home to get over to Utebo to see my tower. It was as beautiful as I had imagined, and I was happy to get to see it. There wasn’t much else to do in Utebo, though, so it might not be worth the effort to everyone. On the way back through, we stopped at a greasy little stand where I had the best churros of my time in Spain so far – a sweet end to a lovely day.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 21:15  Leave a Comment  
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Las Bibliotecas Publicas de Pamplona

Today I finally got a library card. I don’t know why I didn’t do so earlier – I wasn’t sure where the libraries were, I was afraid there would be some complicated proof-of-residency required… and I guess it just seemed too complicated to deal with.

It’s not. Civivox, the big building near my flat that often serves as a meeting place, is apparently a multi-purpose community center with, among other things, a pool and a library. All they needed was a look at my passport and a wallet sized photo, and I’m now free to check out books and dvds. If I’m not missing something, the library’s quite small compared to the ones I’m used to back home – but there are several within Pamplona that seem to have different collections, and the same library card is good at all of them.

They’re quite flexible about the wallet sized photo, by the way. I cut up a photo I had pinned  up in my closet to make one I thought would be far too small of my face – they took it without a comment. Better yet, I found (ex post facto) that you can apply online:

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 18:54  Leave a Comment  
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Foz de Lumbier


The Plan

The Foz de Lumbier is a beautiful and distinctive canyon in the east of Navarra. Photos of its green waters, soaring cliffs, and hundreds of resident vultures tantalized me from every pamphlet and guide to the region. I wanted to go, but with my access to cars essentially non-existent, I wanted to see if there was a way to reach it by public transport. I could think of a few potential issues – 1.) Is the canyon within walking distance of a bus stop? 2.) Is the canyon easily walkable without a guide, map, or prior knowledge? 3.) Is there a bus to the nearest bus stop at a reasonable time? 4.) Is there a bus back from the nearest bus stop at a reasonable time? Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy guide to day-trips from Pamplona, but after a bit of Googling and guesswork, the answer to all the above seemed to be yes, and there was nothing for it but to try. I found my opportunity on a beautiful and unseasonably warm November Friday. I thought it could easily be my last chance, so even though my friends were tied up in class, I set off.

I went to the bus station after my morning classes and ordered potatoes with garlic sauce and a bottle of water. The whole package cost me less than four euros, and was lovingly packaged to go – a quick and easy alternative to packing a lunch for day-trips. With just this, my camera, and a basic plan, I caught the one o’clock bus to Liedena, to the slight surprise of the driver. On Google Maps I could see that the canyon itself was halfway between the small town of Lumbier and Liedena (smaller yet) – and it looked to me as if I could walk easily between them, following the river. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure it would work, as all online advice was written to reasonable people with cars, but I figured that if the path became impassable, I could always return to Liedena and take the bus back from there. To be safe, I had copied down the times of all the returns from both Liedena and Lumbier. If things went well, the walk would be about 8 km = 2 hours, and I had four between my arrival in Liedena, and my last chance of departure from Lumbier. I couldn’t find the exact location of the bus stops on Google, but I figured that Lumbier was a bigger town, and the stop would be more likely to be marked, or if not it would be easier to find someone to ask about it – by arriving in Liedena I would know immediately where that stop was in case of having to revert to plan B.

The Escape from Liedena

I got down at Liedena. I was glad I’d done the walk in this direction, as the official stop seemed to be the parking lot of an auto-body shop. An older woman got off with me and asked me twice if I was really going to Liedena – the first time I merely said ‘yes’ and smiled, the second time I explained that my plan was to walk to Lumbier. She brightened at this, understanding, and told me that it was a lovely walk and popular in the summer – and that right now the first bit was under construction for the new highway, but I could still pass through. I followed her into Liedena proper, which consisted of a few rows of houses, a little cafe, and a church up the road. She showed me the best spot to photograph the town was, so that I’d have a memory of her pueblo, and pointed out the path to Lumbier. I thanked her and set off.

The first part of my journey was through a field of mud – the ugly construction site the woman had warned me about. My original plan had been to try to follow the river, so that’s what I did… at least, until I ran into a rope and a sign prohibiting unauthorized access. Perhaps I wasn’t on the right path after all? Backtracking a little ways, I found a more suitable looking path, much less muddy, that still kept fairly close to the river. I really thought I’d figured it out this time, and was walking happily along a shady path with little farmhouses beside me, when the path suddenly came to an unceremonious end. Looking to the right, I saw for the first time an extremely nice looking path, well maintained and continuing on towards the canyon. This, I thought, must be the path – but I didn’t want to lose another half hour retracing my steps. Summoning up my courage, I cut across a tiny bit of land, dodging planters and sheds (the owner’s house was nowhere in site) and threw myself up the muddy hill on my hands and knees. Triumphantly I landed on what I hoped would be the actual path, and started for a third time on my way. After another kilometer or so, a little path broke away from mine and led into the mountains – here I found a sign at last, confirming that the path I was on led to the canyon. Finally!

The Devil’s Bridge

I followed this path for some time. As much as half of my total walk was on this side of the foz, and the woman in Liedena had told me to just walk until I got to the tunnel. It was a pleasant walk, through, once I had left all the mud and construction behind. The river ran beside and below me, and there were more leaves on the trees left than in Pamplona. Dozens of vultures were flying above me, but in the perfect fall air and sunshine they didn’t seem threatening or ominous at all. At last I reached the tunnel the lady had described, and a good sign post explaining my options. There was a very easy walk through the canyon, or a much longer round trip that also took me up into the mountains. To be on the safe side, I opted for the easy walk, since I didn’t know how well the mountain path would be marked or how long it would take. First, through, I was distracted by a smaller sign, just to the side of the tunnel entrance.

This sign said (in Spanish, Basque, and English): The Devil’s Bridge – 16th century – a bridge of great historical importance until its destruction during the War of Independence (1812). DANGER! Access to the bridge is highly dangerous (danger of falling). Proceed at your own risk.

The path was narrow and high, but wide enough, and one side was against the mountain, and the rocks beneath my feet were solid. I’m not sure I’d want to take the trip with a toddler or two in hand, but it was perfectly fine as long as I didn’t do anything stupid. Soon I was hiking almost directly above the blue river and a few ruined houses. The bridge itself was pretty thoroughly destroyed, and what is left isn’t fantastically interesting, but it’s a cool spot to go to nonetheless. On one side you can look down the river towards Liedena, and on the other you can -almost- see into the canyon itself. When the bridge was complete I’m sure the view from the middle was marvellous, but the way it is now it’s so tempting to try to lean just a bit further out and see the canyon open up – maybe this is the danger the sign warned about!


Enter the Foz

I worked my way back to the tunnel and entered. The reason there’s such a convenient path through the canyon is that the tunnels were once part of a railroad. The tunnel is long and slightly curved, but never so dark you can’t just make out where to walk. Before I knew it, I had reached the end, and I was in the canyon. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I followed a little path down to the water on my left, where I could look out back towards the Devil’s Bridge. A lone kayaker was practicing in the rapids here as I snapped a few pictures, enjoying the sense of calm and quiet.

The canyon itself was so short it only took me half an hour to cross, even taking dozens of photos. The afternoon light was hitting one wall of the canyon and making it shine brilliantly, while the other was in deep shadow and the water separating them seemed to glow faintly as it wound its way through, cutting every second a tiny, tiny bit deeper into the rock. I sat for a few minutes to take pictures of the vultures that flew overhead, and enjoyed the half company of a bunch of schoolchildren who marched through with their teachers, acting exactly like my class would have, at that age. The canyon path ended with another tunnel, a bit shorter than the first, and shortly behind me one of the schoolboys came running and hollering, throwing his bag up in the air. You could hear the voices of his teachers calling behind him, exasperated, but sounding more annoyed than worried.



There was a little picnic area on the Lumbier side of the Foz, and I stopped there to eat my little lunch and let the schoolchildren pass by me. They taunted a herd of sheep as they went by, and the sheep went running for the hills. I mean literally – I’ve never seen sheep move like these, running so fast that at times they seemed to have all four feet up in the air. As soon as the children left, they ran back towards the path just as quickly. The walk to Lumbier was nice again in the golden sunlight, as I passed old men tending old vineyards and several pairs of old women walking two by two for exercise. Before long I rounded a certain corner and could see Lumbier ahead of me, with its city walls and church up on the hill. I followed a sweet looking path towards the town, crossing a tiny patch of woods and a little river on a medieval bridge.

I was quite a bit ahead of schedule, so I headed for the Tourist Information Office/Foz Nature Interpretation Center, where I paid 1.20€ for entry to the center (the information office is free). I was the only one there, and the woman working the front desk had to run up the stairs to turn all the lights and sounds on for me. The center was small but nice, with a variety of different exhibits about the geology of the canyons, the resident vultures, and about nature in general. I suppose the grand majority of it was marketed for children, but I enjoyed the little models and illustrations and the translation of everything into Basque. I even got private showings of the two short movies about the area. On the third floor there was a strange ‘tunnel of sensations’ where you could go through, learn about living in peace with nature, and feel different objects from the forests and canyons to guess what they were. I would have loved that as a child!


Back to Pamplona

When I’d seen all there was to see in the center, and it was getting closer to time to catch the bus, I asked the woman where the bus stop was (it was very close and impossible to miss) and caught the bus back to Pamplona with no issues. All in all, my daytrip to Lumbier was a success. Other than a bit of confusion at the beginning due to the construction, things went easily and according to plan. Although visiting by car would be quicker and more efficient, I also got something special out of doing the trip this way. After all, it’s not only the destination that matters, but also the journey.

Published in: on November 16, 2010 at 23:03  Leave a Comment  
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