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Archive for the ‘Poland!’ Category

From Oswiecim the train to Krakow costs about 11 zlotys, and the ride is about and hour and a half. We reached Krakow around lunchtime and headed straight to our hostel. The hostel, which we reserved beforehand, was wonderful. Highly recommend it to anyone who’s planning to make a tourist stop at Krakow. Krakow, being a very popular tourist destination (probably one of the most popular in Eastern Europe) is home to many unique and comfortable, and very cheap hostels. We did some searching and came up with Kadetus, which was the most affordable for the time period we were there (29th December-30th December). Kadetus is right in the center of the city, minutes from the city square (which came as a pleasant surprise to us). It’s in a very safe location on the main street, snuggled in one of the buildings. You enter on the second floor to a comfortable lounge/kitchen area. The rooms range from 2-3 people to 6-10 people. Decoration is bright, cheerful, and the whole place has a homey feel to it. Our room was a six-bed room, with three beds booked for us. Luggage can be stored in lockers they provide, and small lockers are given inside the room for important stuff (leave your passport locked here!!). There’s free wireless internet, free breakfast, coffee/tea all day long, laundry services and many other amenities, all for the low, low price of 51 zlotys or $17/night (I know…wow!). There are also other themed and eccentric hostels around Krakow that are worth checking out online too.

K and I headed out for a quick tour of the city to use the couple hours of sunlight we had left. This was the second time the sun came out during my entire stay in Poland, and I was grateful to see Krakow by sunlight, although it was terribly cold. We took a quick walk around the city square (LOVELY) and walked into this building whose name I can’t remember anymore, which is lined with numerous souvenir stalls. It reminds me of little lanes in Paltan Bazaar in Doon and such. The souvenirs are mostly those hand-made by the mountain tribes in Poland, and it is beautiful work. My favorite were the small, light boxes with wonderful handiwork, that ranged from 5-35 zlotys. I also loved the hand-carved chess sets, and small wooden plates that had been decorated very carefully, and other unique gift pieces and jewellery.

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(Ooh…I caught a pigeon in flight! There were pigeons everywhere, as seen below)

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By the end of our little excursion, our feet were getting numb with the cold and we were exhausted so we headed back to Kadetus for some re-energization with tea and cookies. Then, the three of us headed out to a little jazz bar for some dinner, where I had a traditional cabbage and kielbasa dish (very yum but heavy). We followed that with a delicious stop at the E. Wedel chocolate shop…and had hot and yummy chocolate (mine was gingerbread hot chocolate…mmm). Polish chocolate is AMAZING and there is just so much creativity and variety, and E. Wedel is one of the major chocolate companies. The store was a little like chocolate-lovers heaven, and just the perfect place to be on a cold winter night. Ahh…..

(Love the presentation of this apple pie a la mode. And the heart gingerbread cookie. Mmm…ginger. Gingerbread was one of my favorite parts of the trip. So much, and so many different kinds!!)

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After sleeping in great comfort and warmth (and like logs) we proceeded to explore the Wawel Castle the next morning, which is also about 5-10 minutes from Kadetus. Wawel Castle served as the royal residence and the site of the kings of Poland from 1038 A.D. to 1596 A.D. People have lived in Wawel Hill as early as 50, 000 years ago. The place is bursting with its complex, lavish history. I love historical places, and I especially love castles. We walked through the tour of the Royal Apartments, which are decorated with wonderful pieces of tapestry and paintings that are ludicrously old, and furniture that dates to many centuries ago. The oldest item we saw was a sculpture of a Roman emperor, dating back to the 1st centure B.C. I get shivers of amazement and wonder in such places, where the walls could tell such fantastic stories, where the objects have survived centuries of human civilization, and where we walk in the same places where a young prince once did, where a king once plotted his wars, where greed and lust and religion controlled the lives of so many, where games of passion, pride, power were played…how wondrous to observe the beauty in the architecture, the loveliness of the designs, the uniqueness of everything. Especially amazing were the detailed tapestries and paintings, usually depicting scenes from the Old Testament or Greek mythology. There was one very interesting room where the ceiling was marked with sculptures of heads! Each had a angry or unhappy expression, and they were strange, almost cartoon-like heads, ranging from a blindfolded lady to a man with horns. We couldn’t figure out why they had been made and placed up there, staring down at you creepily. My theory is that they represent people beheaded by the royal peeps 😉

All my pictures of Wawel came out really white and bright, and none were very special, so I won’t bother posting any. It was a great visit, and strongly recommended. Maybe you can also catch the Crown Jewels, which we didn’t have time for. We walked around a bit and reached the square again, where we feasted on delicious pizza from a Pizza Dominion, and then headed to explore St. Mary’s cathedral. The cathedral is right in the center of the square, it is opulently lavish and beautiful inside, richly decorated and absolutely shining with gold plating. For about six zlotys you get to go right up the altar. I truly enjoyed it, and could easily have spent several hours just gaping at the ornate designs. Cathedrals and churches in Poland was clearly where all the money flowed through the centuries.

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I realized in Poland that God is given a face, atleast in Catholicism. He’s an old bearded guy, resembling Jesus. I realize Jesus is the son of God, and so giving him an image is fine, but if you give God a face, isn’t that idol worship? I wasn’t sure how it was different from idol worship, and we had an interesting (marked with sardonic bits) discussion on that.

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We walked back through the square, which was extremely busy (which is probably the case all year around) and lighted beautifully in preparation of the New Year’s Eve party stage and headed back to Kadetus. The concert was apparently going to be graced by Shakin’ Stevens (whose style is reminiscent, I read, of Elvis Presley’s style) and…wait for it….drumroll…Lou Bega! Because no New Year’s celebration can be complete without Mambo #5 and I Got A Girl (don’t deny it, you remember those classics, and I bet you still sing along :)). Krakow is beautiful by night. The old square, reminiscent of Poznan’s city square, is lined with lovely ancient buildings, restored well and used by shops, cafes, and restaurants. The streets are paved, just like in Poznan, and lined with little stores (we went into a little tea shop that has been at the same place since 1859–wow!). Krakow is beautifully preserved, especially since it served as Nazi headquarters during the war, and so was not wrought havoc on as other cities in Poland were. There are also very few of the ugly Communist style buildings. Overall, it is a city rich in history and absolutely lovely in its architecture and its overall aura, brimming with life and culture. I wish I had had more than a day to spend there, but that day was extremely pleasant, interesting, and beautiful! Dziekuje, Krakow! 🙂

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We’re 15 days into a whole new year! I hope the coming year brings to all good health, success in endeavors, the ability to stay strong in the face of adversity, the drive to fight injustice where you see it, the desire to improve our homes and communities, and the hope of a better year, with less sorrow and chaos and conflict, and much more humanity. I have hope for 2008…and with my loved ones I hope to make this year a happier one, one that brings us all together, one that creates beautiful memories and one that holds even greater hope for the future.

So I basically disappeared after my last post. We left for Krakow and Oswiecim soon after (Dec 28th) and then I left for England, where I essentially spent all my time adoring my niece, except for the final two days in London. And since returning I’ve been quite literally caught up in stuff, and just not in a writing mood. I apologize to anyone who’s been following up on my Poland trip. Blogging has to be fun for me and if it seems like a chore I take a respite. But here goes a brief account of my very interesting finale to the Poland trip, with this post, and the next one.

Recounting Auschwitz is going to be really hard, and thats part of the reason I kept delaying this post, but I know I must. Please be warned: the rest of this post is clearly going to be depressing and maybe even disturbing to read. The pictures are just of the camp area, you are not allowed to photograph inside the blocks.

Oswiecim:

From Poznan we took a late night train to Oswiecim. The train leaves after midnight, and you make one change at Karowice (I think thats the city), at about 5am. Its not bad, because you kind of doze off (not very comfortably since we didn’t get sleeper berths, which cost more), and wake up at the station. It beats wasting a day traveling. The whole train ride cost 46 zlotys or about $15 one way, which was a great price. We reached Oscwiecim around 8:00am on the 29th. It was freezing cold. This part of Poland is much colder than the Poznan area, and accordingly I was well-layered. With the large number of foreign tourists that come to visit Auschwitz year round, the station is fully equipped for non-Polish speakers. Information on buses to the camp are readily available, and all the staff speak English. There’s a place to keep your suitcases, which was extremely convenient. Around 8:30am we took a bus to get us to Auschwitz. Its only about a 20 minute walk from the railway station, I think, but it was too cold for walking. I remember someone saying that as you got closer to the camp it got colder, almost like the place had a horrible freezing effect on you.

We got there very early, before the large groups of tourists arrived (by 10am, even on December 29th, the place was packed). They provide guidebooks of both camps (Auschwitz I is the main one, closer to the city, and Aushwitz Birkenau is about a three mile walk along the ‘Interest Zone’). They mark out the route that shows you the key points of the camp, which is what we did. Everything in the camp was painful to walk through. You can’t rate anything on a scale of how horrible it was. We walked through the Polish exhibit (each country has its own exhibit. Poles formed the largest group of people killed at Auschwitz), then others chronicling life in the camps.

Entering the camp
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Arbeit Macht Free, or Work Makes One Free.
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This is at the entrance to the camp itself. Prisoners walked across here daily, and roll call was held here for hours. Those shot while trying to escape were hung from a post nearby in clear view, to warn the others.

The majority of those held here were men. Women were brought here starting 1942, when the gynecologist Carl Clauberg conducted experiments on Jewish women in one of the blocks of this camp. Josef Mengele also conducted his horrible, gruesome and blood chilling experiments in this camp also.

We walked through exhibits that chronicled what happened at each step. If you’ve read Elie Wiesel’s works, or anything related to the Holocaust, you know what those steps are. Belongings stripped away. Clothes stripped off. Shaving. Either the disinfecting baths or straight to the gas chambers. Its horrific. One block chronicles the barracks and living arrangements. Another chronicles the plight of the children. Another Mengele’s experiments, and on, and on.

In most of the blocks the walls are lined with framed pictures of the prisoners. Rows and rows and rows of faces of men and women. These were taken when the inmates first arrived (towards the end, the SS stopped taking these pictures). Most are sober, in some faces there is confusion, fright, astonishment, others look harried, exhausted, yet others are questioning, angry, frustrated. Here and there, though, there is a slight innocent smile (perhaps hoping the smile would soften the cruel photographer?), or even the calm and smile of rebellion. These rows of pictures are still vivid in my memory.

The Execution Wall
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Hundreds of men were executed by the SS against the wall here. There is a small room that shows the cleaning area through which those doomed for this wall passed through and stripped before walking out and being shot. It is chilling.

There were special rooms for those who were willing to act as spies for the SS. These are more furnished, clearly different from the grass wooden barracks that 5-6 people shared in the blocks in the freezing cold. No sanitary systems were installed earlier, these only came later and were minimal and very unhygienic. Prisoners were dressed in the striped shirt and pajama uniform that almost everyone remembers. Small colored triangles coded them: Pole, Jew, Gypsy, Homosexual, German criminal…

Prisoners were hung here publicly as a lesson to others

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Another block contains an exhibit about the resistance. This is one of the most profound parts of the museum. The resistance is what brought the news out of what was happening in Auschwitz. The members were individuals of unbelievable courage. Some even got arrested and thrown into Auschwitz just so they may chronicle what was happening, escape and tell the world. Others maintained the spirit in the camp. In a place where such an idea was unimaginable, hope still existed and ran through the camp. In fact, prisoners even fought against their own sorrow to look at their situation with black humor, the only way they could survive it. I stood there amazed and struck by a single thought: here I stood on the grounds of a place where the worst, cruelest, most unimaginable crimes against humanity were committed, and this is also the place which is the greatest proof of the resilience of human spirit, the tenacity of humanity. The will to survive, to live, to tell one’s story to the world, the will to just be fought through all the evil and cruelty and pain and torture here, and continued to exist. Nothing and no one could exterminate that, with no technique in the world. It is an amazing, wondrous thought. It increases one’s respect for humanity tremendously. It led me to question: would I have the strength, the desire to fight to live? Or would I be unable to tolerate the horror of my condition? Millions were held at Auschwitz, and according to the last study done in 1990, 1.1 million died. Most were killed by the gas chambers, others by starvation or torture, forced labor, executions, disease and experimentation. A very small percentage killed themselves.

Isn’t it ironic that a monument to how depraved humanity can be is also a monument to how magnificent and strong human spirit can be?

What is most terrifying of the Holocaust, and of Auschwitz, is how organized it was. Genocide has happened to every ethnicity, at one point or another in history. The Partition of India is marked by mass genocide that was never recognized or recorded. The Rwandan genocide, the genocide occuring in Darfur…However, it is chilling to observe how organized and efficient the Holocaust was. Records were kept, pictures taken by the SS, detailed notes taken…it was no mob mentality, violent uprising, no short period of knives and axes. It was a very planned and carefully executed genocide, an idea that sickens one to the stomach. That, I think, is one of the worst parts. Perhaps this has not been the only time, perhaps such an organized murder has taken place somewhere else at some other time in history, but this is one that is known, documented, studied, recorded, whose signs have been preserved. This happened only about 60 years ago.

It took a lot of strength for me to write this post and recount my walk through camp I. Thus, its broken, incomplete, and kind of in pieces joined together. Bringing myself back to it is something that I hate to do, but I continually keep doing. I want to remember it as much as I want to forget it. I haven’t been able to write a lot, not as much as I remember, because I just can’t. It makes me shudder everytime I think of it. I have been reading of the Holocaust since I was about 10, when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, and by the time I was 15 I had read so much that I was actually forbidden by my parents to read anymore, since it had made me such a wreck. I always knew that if I had the chance, I would visit Auschwitz, and throughout my trip to Poland I dreaded this part. Reading about it is one thing, seeing everything makes it so real that it quite literally shocks you and shakes you inside. I’m not a weak person, and I do not shy away from a lot, but I did not have the strength for this. After camp I, I was so troubled that I could not go to Birkenau, which is the larger camp, and the extermination camp (and would have been many times more disturbing). K, who I respect for being much stronger than me, was not able to go either and very understandable agreed that we leave. I just knew that if I walked through Birkenau I would be in a terrible state and be haunted for a much, much longer time, and I just could not bring myself to it. I hope that one day I will be stronger and more prepared, and return to see the entire museum, because I believe it is something I must do. I must see it all, and talk about it, and tell others. We must all remember. K told me once when I was very apprehensive about going that it was very obviously something everyone fears, it is understandable that I was terrified. But no matter what, she said, it had to be something everyone must do. Everyone must fully realize the extent of what happened and remember it, no matter how difficult it might be.

I left Auschwitz terrified and trembling inside. I thought over everything I’d seen for a long time, then blocked it out. Occasionally, since coming back, when telling someone about my trip, I will think back and remember the faces. I’ll remember the block with the large expanse of eyeglasses, scattered toothbrushes, hairbrushes, torn and broken dolls. I’ll remember each part of our walk, what I saw and how I felt. I know I’ll always remember. I hope it will always affect me. I hope it will drive my human rights work, and each time I question the use of what I do or get tired of fighting I’ll remember that walk. I’ll remember that strength of the people who lived there, their desire to live, their hope, their tenacity to fight, that still breathes and can be felt in the walls.

I’ll remember it all.

auschwitz

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I really don’t mean to have only picture posts, and I have a lot to write about, but being wickedly sick and sounding like Squeaky McSqueak doesn’t leave much energy for the computer (my cold turned into a chest cough which evolved into laryngitis-whee!). Hopefully later I’ll be able to write more about what I’ve done (apart from sitting on an armchair covered with a blanket and whining a whole lot in front of the tv, using hundreds of tissues ;)).

But even while being sick prevents me from venturing outside much, the foodie in me keeps me delighted (once the appetite returned). Christmas Eve is the biggest night in Poland, and we had a wonderful Polish dinner (after which we opened many, many presents!), and Christmas Day we repeated the exercise at K’s parents’ house in Poznan. It was all wonderful. Not only did I have a variety of delicious dishes, but I loved observing the cultural uniqueness of Christmas here in Poland. Especially since this is a largely Roman Catholic country and has its own traditions and customs that I have never seen before. We also managed to go to midnight mass at two different churches (hopefully my touristy-ness did not upset too many people!), which was fascinating also (and two BEAUTIFUL churches in Poznan, one from 1148 A.D. which was absolutely incredible, I hope to go back in the daytime).

Anyway, since I am running out of fuel, and I can begin to feel the ache and fatigue of my throat and vocal cords (its actually not all that bad..anymore..but ive always loved being dramatic ;)), I will end here and leave you with pictures, and the names of the dishes we ate (which K has to help me with because there is no way I can remember them. Or spell them).

I hope everyone has had a wonderful, merry christmas! 🙂

This is the table set for dinner…A’s mom did EVERYTHING. K and I couldn’t even help much, on account of the sickness. She’s amazing. 🙂

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Mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa), Panga fish (baked), corn, pork (pieczen wieprzowa) with meat-grain stuffing (kasza z miesem).

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Rolls (pyzy), potato-vegetable salad (salatka jarzynowa), sauerkraut and mushroom pates, curry eggs, bread, poppy seed and bread dessert (makielki), dried fruit compote (kompot z suszu).

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Yum yum! 🙂

At K’s parents house. Pierogis (with cottage cheese, potatoes and onions), mashed potatoes with butter, pork roll with kielbasa and cheese (zrazy), pate with sauerkraut and mushroom.

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Dessert! Homemade cheesecake (sooo good), poppy seed bread, small cakes and gingerbread cookies…oh it was all so good.

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Raspberry cheesecake!

cheesecake

Okay….tea time for my throat. 🙂

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Yay pictures!!

I just thought I’d upload a couple here. A bunch of other pics, including all the ones with people in them, are uploaded on my Flickr account. 🙂

Here is a picture of the Old Square in Poznan, at night. Its decorated for Christmas, with lovely lights and music, and a festive spirit prevailed the entire square the other night we were there.

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The Old Square, again. K said the buildings are from the 15-16th century. Wowsa! We went to a pharmacy near this place which was built in 1564.

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There was an ice-sculpture and art festival going on when we reached. Amazing ice sculptures, like this one below.

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This is the gigantic Stary Browar, the mall I mentioned in my last post.

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K and I are both sick…I’m guessing the change of weather…and so we’re just staying in and protecting ourselves from the chill today. Pity, because we were supposed to go shop in Poznan, but I can’t make myself move outside! Being sick on holiday: what luck! Hopefully we’ll be hearty and healthy by tomorrow!

More pics…Poznan by day and some of Puszsczykowo will be coming up soon. Stay warm everyone!

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Dzien Dobry! (Good day to you in Polish)

I reached Poland after a long, long trip, being sweaty, filthy and smelly by the end of the last leg. I had myself originally planned it that way so I’d see bits of other countries and their people from the airports, but I had forgotten that Iceland has six months of darkness in the winter, and even by the time I reached Copenhagen it as all dark. So it didn’t exactly work out as planned, and I was running to catch my plane at each airport, but in the end it was okay. It was an interesting journey, well worth it, and it made me so, so delighted to see K’s face at the Warsaw airport.

Poland is a very interesting country, so far. Puszsczykowo is a very small, quaint little town (about 9000 people?), with small little shops and little unique parts. There is a small bakery with such DELICIOUS cakes and donuts and yum pastries that I wanted to eat it all. We only tried the polish donuts (rum filled, yum) and a custard pastry which was also very good. Polish sweets are not as sweet as American cakes and pastries, and everything was so fresh here, and beautifully iced and decorated…mmmm.

We went to a beautiful church yesterday, very Roman Catholic, with lovely stained glass and figurines. To get there, we took a walk through a forest that reminded me of the forest in The Village (not in a scary way). All the trees were green with moss, and everything was damp and green everywhere. We didn’t see any animals, but K said there are deer and foxes and wild pigs, and squirrels that are so flitsy no one has ever seen one!

We also went to Poznan yesterday evening, the big city. Poznan is a beautiful city. The city square has buildings from the 16-17th century (wow!), that are used as apartments or for other purposes, and are very well preserved. There are stones in the grounds that are 5-6 centuries old. Yesterday there was some kind of artist’s fair going on, so there were all kinds of little bright stalls everywhere. And a series of beautiful ice sculptures (very pretty!). The town was very alive, buzzing with life and talk, like any big city, except it had the old-worldly charm to it…like Ottawa, in that sense. There are sweet narrow roads paved with stone, with fancy shops lining them (H&M, Samsonite, etc). There are elegant coffee shops (NO Starbucks anywhere! Its a miracle! We had a cardamom chocolate at the Cafe Nescafe…yum…and they use real heavy cream here, not the sugary whipped cream). We walked to a HUGE mall, which K said has developed in the last two years to be really amazing and big. There are name brand stores, and some small ones too, but its very Galleria. Its decorated with these random pieces of modern art, which gives it a very cool, un-mall like look. There was this one freaky anime character right in the center of the top floor, totally out of place! There’s also an art gallery that you can just walk in, and this beautiful walkway with lots and lots of lights (and an American restaurant called ‘Rodeo’ heehee). Definitely an interesting place.

From there we walked around the square and through a permanent farmer’s market to K’s parents’ aparment. Her family is wonderful, very kind and cheerful, and despite the language barrier I felt very comfortable. A’s mom, who I’m staying with, is fluent in English (and teaches English classes) and she is a wonderful woman, very kind, elegant and lovely to talk to. I’ve been enjoying staying here. The house is very, very old and extremely beautiful, filled with antiques and exquisite designs. Its very European in design. I have a sweet little guest bedroom, and it has a cabinet with a sink! I’ve never seen that. A’s mom has decorated everything beautifully and she has also refinished and restored a lot of the furniture and design. Its an impressive house.

K’s mom served us some bean soup (with potatoes and carrots) and some home-made chicken broth (cooked with leeks and carrots and other veggies). It was very nice, comforting food, warm after a long day in the cold. The cold here is very damp, its late fall K says, and it rains a lot in November. It has been gray the entire time, and I hope it brightens up soon. The weather and the cold is similar to Doon, I think, atleast in Nov/Dec. Very damp that’ll go to your bones, and a little dreary weatherwise, but not as cold (definitely not as cold) as Massachusetts! MA takes the cake for being much colder than Poland! K says its not always this gray, so hopefully I’ll get to have some sunny days here too!

That’s essentially been everything so far 🙂 I think I’m a little under the weather so now I will retire to my room (taking an off day today) and stay cozy in the feather-filled comforter (its SO warm!) with a book. Speaking of which…did anyone know that Masoom is blatantly, shamelessly ‘inspired’ from Erich Segal’s Man, Woman and Child? So much so that even the dialogue is similar (the chitter-chatter between the girls, the mother’s coldness towards the little boy (played so well by Shabana Azmi and Jugal Hansraj), the way he tells his wife…all of it!)?? Very interesting….

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