British Travels: Random Observations From Our Recent Christmas Trip to Britain

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Every time we travel to Britain we learn something new. We’ve been there a dozen times and there is always something new to learn and discover about our favorite place to visit. Discovery is the best part of travel.

During each trip, I keep a running notebook going of my random observations. They’re thoughts and observations that occurred to me during the trip that I thought were interesting and worth further exploration when I returned home. Some don’t warrant an entire article, some may in the future.

I watch less British TV when I’m actually in Britain

This is a strange one to admit. We watch a lot of British TV in the Anglotopia household. Probably more British TV than American TV (I’m not afraid to admit that). The wonders of technology (that we can’t talk about for legal reasons) allows us to do that these days. So, we’re always really excited when we get to Britain to be able to watch hours and hours of British TV.

Except we almost always never watch as much TV as we hope.

The biggest reason is that – we’re in Britain – we don’t want to waste our whole trip watching TV – we can do that at home! Also, we have our own British DVR of sorts back home, so we acquire the shows after they air and then watch them when our schedule suits. When we’re in the UK, it turns out our schedule doesn’t suit watching TV when it actually airs on TV. Between the kid’s bedtime and being out for the day, we just don’t watch much telly while we’re in the UK.

There are exceptions – like the Doctor Who and Downton Abbey Christmas specials but for the most part we found ourselves playing catchup when we got home with all the British TV we missed while we were IN Britain!

I get better cell phone reception than I do back home

Anglotopia’s offices are in the basement in our house and if I’m lucky, I will get 1 bar of cellular reception. Most of the time it flashed ‘no service.’ While we’re in the UK – there were few places our cell coverage was below full bars. Only in the remotest countryside was our reception not as good – but even then it was better than we usually get at home! So – way to go UK for a solid cellular network.

Brits Really Want to Make Clear the Distinctions as Town, Village, City…

We have to be very careful of the verbiage we use when we refer to places. Brits are very sensitive to the correct usages of Town, City, Village, Hamlet, etc. For example, our favorite place – Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset – looks like a typical English village scene. But don’t you dare call it a Village – it’s a Town. And also don’t dare call a city like Salisbury a Town – it’s a proper City. I think exploring the definition of these types of ‘conurbations’ will make for an interesting post in the future.

They Don’t Want You to say “The Holidays”

We told everybody back home that we were going to Britain for ‘The Holidays’ – to us that meant Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s etc. It’s a simple phrase and an easy way to say what we’re doing. But we found that several British people would prefer we not use the term ‘the holidays’ and instead refer to it as Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year’s and not lump them all together.

Fair enough.

It’s exhausting making the most of every moment –  I have the whole rest of the year to not be in England.

File this under ‘first world problems’ but when we’re in England I’m basically exhausted for the entire time. Because it costs so much and takes so much to get there for any amount of time, I always feel like I need to make the most of every minute. This means sleep is a minor goal for the trip so I can make the most of it. This leads to fatigue very quickly – especially when you’re there for a month. Also, after this trip it was very hard to get over the jet lag, normally a day or two I’m fine but it look almost a whole week this time. Rule for the next trip: relax more!

The water in Britain is so soft!

I love the water in Britain. Here in Valparaiso, Indiana the city gets its water from deep wells dug into the ground which gives us very hard water – despite their best efforts. All the places we stayed in Britain had the most luxuriously soft water. Taking a bath or shower was amazing. I already miss it!

I like that the BBC is channel 1, so easy to remember!

If you don’t have cable/satellite in Britain, the channels are pretty easy to remember. BBC1 is always channel 1. BBC2 is channel 2. ITV is Channel 3 and so one. Makes it very easy to remember!

Cbeebies is so much better than the cartoons at home

Anglotopia Jr loved the cartoons on offer in the UK. In fact many of the cartoons are the same ones that he enjoys at home, except we learned that the shows were originally British and flow much better with the original British accents. Why can’t Bob the Builder keep his British accent in the USA?

Channels Go Off the Air

Here in the land of 24 hour TV networks, channels almost always never go off the air. Even when they do, they usually show a repeat of the dreaded infomercials. But the screen always has something on. In Britain, they have several channels that don’t begin broadcasting until the evenings (like BBC3 or BBC4) and only broadcast for a few hours before they shut off again. The rest of the time the channel is a blank spout that says when the channel returns. How strange. If you have the bandwidth, why not run shows all day and night? The BBC puts out plenty of stuff for people to watch.

Having to Tell Every Cashier to Swipe is really annoying.

Most US travelers to the UK have run into this problem. Most of Europe now uses a Chip & Pin card system were you insert your card into a reader and then type in your PIN. The cashier never needs to touch your card – they even bring the card reader to your table in a restaurant. It’s so much more secure. For whatever reasons, US banks don’t generally offer a Chip & Pin Card (this is starting to change, but not all banks offer them yet) which means that when you go shopping in the UK you have to tell every cashier they need to swipe it.

What’s really annoying is that they swipe so few cards, some aren’t sure how to do it and almost always have to search for a pen for you to sign with. Also, British retailers are real sticklers for checking your signature. I can’t remember that last time anyone in the US examined my signature closely. Made me self-conscious to make sure I did it right every time.

Ice in the orange juice but not in the soda

This struck me as strange. Whenever I’d order orange juice at breakfast, it would come with ice cubes in it. Why? Strangely, it’s still common in most places to not get ice in your soft drink unless you ask for it. But it comes in the orange juice un-asked for.

Automatic extractor fans are annoying

We found these strange devices in most of the self-catering units we stayed in. Of course, we have bathroom extractor fans here in the USA. But the ones in the UK operate rather strangely. Some are delayed and only turn on after you need them. Other turn on when you turn on the light. But the really annoying ones are the one that continue to stay on long after you’ve left the bathroom. They’re usually LOUD and makes you feel rather embarrassed if you have company.

Empty Grocery Shelves

America likes abundance. So much so, that in grocery stores you will almost always never see empty shelves unless there is an impending disaster. It’s rather strange when you go into a grocery store – usually late in the day or on the weekends and find many of the shelves bare or barely stocked. Where is everything?!?!?!

The Toast Goes Sideways

This blew our minds. Every time we made toast in our toaster, the bread was so big that it the whole slice would not get toasted. It took a friend to turn the toast on its side for us to realize why…

And Another Thing – British Bread is Amazing

British Bread is simply amazing. No wonder toast is considered a meal here. The bread is dense and hearty and full of nutrition. Here in the USA – our breads are more light and airy and crammed with garbage. Hovis makes some of the best bread. My favorite snack became white toast, slathered in British butter with orange marmalade. My mouth is watering typing this.

Retail Hours Are Very Confusing

Retail hours here in the USA are generally straightforward, the 24 hour stores aside, most stores open early and close late. In the UK it’s not like this at all. While they do have 24 hour stores, they’re not 7 days a week – by law they can only be open for 6 hours on Sundays and Holidays. Many stores close at 5 or 6pm – making you wonder how people who work get their shopping done. So, as we traveled over the holiday period, the stores seemed like they were always closed when we needed something.

What was maddening was the inconsistency. Some stores would be open, others would be closed. Or the hours posted on the door would say a store should be open, but it wasn’t. Or it would be open early one day but not open until later the next. We learned that rather than relying on always being able to run to the store for something like we can back home, we just had to plan ahead and get what we needed when the store was open.

The Weather Was Great – Except When it Wasn’t…

When we told people we were going to Britain for a month during December and January – they laughed at us. “Britain has terrible weather – why wouldn’t you go somewhere warm?” Was the general refrain. Actually Britain has generally pleasant weather int he winter and for the first week or so of our trip – it was pleasant. Temperatures were around 50 degrees Fahrenheit – there was occasional rain but generally the sun was out. It was fantastic.

We felt particularly smug when we heard that back home in Chicago they got -30 degree temperatures and two feet of snow!

And then – the windstorms hit. While we were in Dorset – which is close to the southern coast – we experienced some of the craziest winds in our entire lives – combined with torrential rain – it kept us inside quite a bit and did a lot of damage to low-lying areas. The flooding was amazing to behold and scary for the people caught in it. But then after a day of driving rain and wind – the sun would come out and it’d be warm again.

What’s funny is that almost every British person we ran into apologized for the bad weather we were experiencing. No, it’s all right – it was much worse back home!

Do you have any fun observations from your last trip to the UK? Let us know in the comments!

Comments

  1. avatar says

    The shops annoy me too – and I live here! Most of the small ones open 9-5, but some towns have early closing days so you have to know which day is early closing in which town. I do wish they were all open late in the evening. Banks are even worse; until recently they all opened 9.30-3.30 and were closed at weekends. Even now they close at 4.30 and only a few open on Saturday mornings.

    It’s very important to get the towns, villages, etc. right. I live in a village (of 15,000 people) and it proudly states “Village” on the signs. There are specific criteria for a city anyway (it has to have a university and/or a cathedral, or be given city status for some other reason) so safest to assume everything is a town unless told otherwise.

    Glad you liked the bread. Conversely, we were shocked by how bad American bread (and cheese, and chocolate) was when we were there. It had sugar in it! I do miss Mexican food, though… that was amazing.

    • avatar says

      Anna. , you can get some nice crusty or granery breads in America but are found in more speacialized grocers. . Youre right though. , the basic supermarket bread is crap and the chocolate is waxy .

    • avatarretnavybrat says

      After having British chocolate, I told someone that I finally figured out the origin of the stereotype of the British having bad teeth: their chocolate is so wonderful, they end up eating too much of it. ; D

  2. avatar says

    Hi Jonathan , enjoy your page . My mother is an English war bride from Reading. , Berks so Ive traveled to the UK quite a bit over the last 30 odd years . Most of your observstions are spot on . Lovely bread ! And beer ! The English arent the most efficient people on the planet either . Love a day in London but rural England is my cup of tea. . Chuffed to bits to spend all of my time there .
    Ill be leaving mid February for trip to Blighty . 3 blistful weeks ! Im a musician as well and get in on some pub gigs with friends . Look forward to getting back

  3. avatarAdrian Baggott says

    To explain the BBC 3&4 thing its how the Freeview digital network works, there is limited space so they time share with CBBC and Cbeebies. They are on all day and then 3 and 4 take over in the evening. But they have separate channel numbers.

    • avatarJohn Evans says

      Jonathan: To clarify further, the Freeview digital technology multiplexes several channels (as selectable on your TV) together in one broadcast channel (a band of UHF “wireless” frequencies). There are a limited number of UHF bands available for terrestrial TV transmission in the UK, so to make as many TV channels available as possible, some channels share the space across a 24 hour period. So, as Adrian points out, since young children are supposed to be in bed at night, CBBC and CBeebies are replaced by the adult BBC3 and BBC4 channels in the evening.

      However, lots of other channels do broadcast 24 hours a day, but as in the US, at dead of night and in the early hours of the morning they tend to go for Infomercials and other tele-shopping broadcasts.

      Now that the old analogue transmitters have been decommissioned, there’s some more broadcast bandwith available, and much of this has been used to provide HD (high definition) services. In the South East and other parts of the UK, the BBC has launched HD channels for BBC3, BBC4, CBBC and CBeebies.

      Oh, and the Freeview channel numbering for most of the HD channels is easy too:
      101 for BBC1, 102 for BBC 2, 103 for ITV, 104 for Channel 4.

  4. avatarSteve Clark says

    I agree with you about the bread Jonathan. Bread here in the States is just terrible. I miss my British loaf so much. I once brought some back on the plane with us – I couldn’t bare not having it.

  5. avatarDaria Stoner says

    It is SO irritating that U.S. refuses to use chip and pin. Europe has tried it and proved its value, in so many ways. I can only hope current Target and Neiman Marcus madness will raise the issue here again.

    • avatarretnavybrat says

      Off-topic, but I read an article online this morning that Michael’s (the arts and crafts supply store) may have been hit by similar hackers as well.

    • avatarJohn Evans says

      Chip and pin has been so successful that in the UK many people use chip and pin debit cards more often than cash. I’ve noticed that more and more car parks allow you to pay by debit card, which saves the nightmare of having to find the correct change. And according to the Guardian newspaper “The average British adult spends more on debit cards than every other country in Western Europe except Denmark, according to data released today.(http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/jul/03/uk-card-use-debit-credit)

  6. avatar says

    I do enjoy reading your posts and articles about the UK. I am an American, living in the UK and I have always been an Anglophile, for as long as I remember! I was drawn to anything and everything British. Couldn’t get enough Agatha Christie books, cups of tea and beautiful English dishes and teapots. I loved it all, from the Beatles to Big Ben!

    Having lived here now for a few years, experiencing true British life, a bit of the shine has worn off. I still love it here. Britain is just so beautiful, the countryside is so gorgeous, lush green all the time and so much to see, castles galore! And so much history!! American’s think items 100 years old are antiques. But when you see something that is over a thousand years old, it changes your perspective a bit on what is really old.

    My biggest challenge was learning to drive on the left side of the road, while sitting in the right side of the car! I took a few lessons with the AA driving school and it was only a couple of weeks before my brain “flipped” and I was driving like a pro! One of my peeves about living here is the parking situation. Most towns and cities have hardly any parking and when you do find some you pay through the nose!! It is very expensive to park here, even down to some grocery stores charging you to park while you spend your money in their store! Incredible!

    I think I could almost write a book too about living and working here and the differences in living standards. The houses here are so tiny! The fridges are tiny and don’t even get me started on the washing machines. I do miss the huge washers and dryers back in the states. And dishwashing is not the same. Here most Brits wash the dishes but do not rinse the suds off, they just let them dry on the dishes. I still can’t get used to that!

    Anyway, Britain is a wonderful place and I do love it here, It has become my adopted home, but it is still not the same as ” Back Home in the States”.

    Best regards from an fellow Anglophile,

    Martha :-)

    • avatarMrsCintheUK says

      I sorry the shine has worn off!!! Can I just say one thing – I don’t know anyone who just leaves their dishes to dry with the suds on them – that’s what drying up cloths are for and most of us dry our dishes and put them away.

    • avatar says

      Our first experience driving in England was a Monday morning rush hour in London, starting in Chelsea. Trial by fire. This was our first UK trip in 2012. It was harrowing, to say the least, not helped by the fact that we got lost in the city, despite having our own GPS.

      We logged 1200 road miles on the 2012 trip, and just a shade under 1100 miles on our 2013 trip.

      But apart from the narrowness of the roads, which is something I think that always requires vigilance, I had the driving more or less down by the second day. We went from London to York on Day 1.

      I got the reversed geometries and sightlines pretty quickly. I’m still a little overly cautious behind the wheel, especially in the towns, but really only because I’m still learning the nuances of driving etiquette and the signage.

      In general, I find the English drivers more polite and far less aggressive than US drivers.

      I’m blogging (in slow installments) our 2013 trip to the UK, at the website below.

  7. avatar says

    I am English and must say I have NEVER been given ice in OJ, the water is not soft everywhere – it varies a lot and Anna is quite correct when she says that there is specific criteria for a city to be called a city.
    I enjoy reading your articles but sometimes it bugs me that you make sweeping assumptions. Our country may be small, but it’s diverse and varied for its size. What you may experience in one place does not necessarily ring true everywhere.

        • avatarmary ward says

          Yes, of course. But I wonder if this site attracts more of us who live elsewhere than England, and understand that Jonathon lives in US and is a visitor to England. I do so appreciate Jonathon sharing his experiences on this site. I will be visiting again in April, this time Cornwall.

    • avatarJohn Evans says

      The water in much of the South East of the UK, including London, is very hard indeed, because it comes from chalk aquifers. On the other-hand, Birmingham’s water is delightfully soft because it comes all the way from mid-Wales. The softest water I’ve encountered was in the Scottish Highlands – filtered through peat and also delightfully soft, but brown-tinged from the peat!

  8. avatarSharon Mefford says

    When I was in Windsor in 2005, I had the best baked potato I’ve ever tasted. It was smaller than our Idaho or baking potatoes, and it was rich and creamy inside. A couple of times I had to eat on the fly and bought one of those pre-packaged sandwiches. It was a puzzlement to me why I could buy a cheese sandwich or a ham sandwich, but not a ham and cheese sandwich. How they drink warm soft drinks is beyond me. I had breakfast at Heathrow (this was in 1979) and I ordered pancakes. When I was just about finished, the waitress brought me an order of toast. Fried bread smells delicious and will get anyone to the table for breakfast. They can keep their spotted dick as far as I’m concerned. Chicken pie with an airy crust almost 3 inches high is heavenly.

  9. avatarMelissa says

    I found the same thing weather-wise. I live in NY and traveled to Britain in November so everyone told me I’d freeze! I packed my warm boots and wool coat to prepare for the worst. It was 50 degrees and even when it rained, it wasn’t chilly. The best part was how everyone apologized for the weather!! I couldn’t explain enough that I would have been disappointed if it had t rained while I was there!!!

    Love your blog!! xoxo

  10. avatarDan Peters says

    I also noticed the distinction of town, village, and city was important to the locals we met on our trip to the West country area of England last year. My referring to Holcombe, where we were relaxing in a delightful pub, as a city was met with friendly teasing by the regulars. We also remember fondly the free range eggs for breakfast and how all food is served really hot.

  11. avatar says

    What a wonderful article! I’m so glad you thought to share your observations. I will have to remember to ask for orange juice without ice if I am ever in England, but I will look forward to the bread and water. :) You have taught me to appreciate one thing about the U.S., at least: Stores with consistent hours of operation!

    You suggested you might write more on the town v. village v. city controversy and I hope you do because I would love to read that one!

    I’m glad you all had a good time and stayed safe. I can’t wait to read more of your posts here! :)

  12. avatarCarol South says

    I have enjoyed reading your experiences of Britain. We have just returned from our first trip over there and just loved every minute of it. Being Australian with convict British Ancestors I really felt it was like finally being at home, I can’t explain why but that’s the way I felt about it. I love the countryside and adored the town of Shaftsbury. Definitely going back, but this year off to US and Canada.

  13. avatar says

    This was a very interesting read – and I now know a new word, extractor fan (well, two words, really ;-)). I had no idea what those things were called in English, but they are just as annoying here in Germany. ;-) I don’t think I get the toast thing, though… could you elaborate on this one?

    I must admit I laughed out loud when I read about the ‘amazing’ British bread. I’m German and whenever we go to the UK decent bread is the hardest thing to find, everything they sell in supermarkets is basically what we’d call toast but not ‘real’ bread. Actually, now you’re calling their bread amazing it’s making me feel quite scared of ever visiting the States because I fear what we might find there will be even worse than British bread (and I hadn’t thought that possible until now) *LOL*. A friend of mine lives in Bournemouth and always takes loads of bread back with her when she visits her parents in Germany and even asks friends to bring bread when they come to stay with her. I highly recommend trying our bread sometime (I think there are a few German delis in the bigger cities in the States where you might find some – or just hop across the Channel for a day or two next time you’re in England). :-)

    http://allbritaingreatandsmall.wordpress.com

    • avatar says

      I have to agree, I grew up in England and visit often, now live in the US. I visited Germany for the first time a few years ago and the bread was incredible, no contest best I have ever eaten, I lived on sandwiches!

      • avatar says

        I don’t even know what the reason is that makes our bread feel and taste so much different (I don’t know the first thing about baking), but I’m glad you liked it. :-)

  14. avatarDiane says

    Thank you for your observations – made me stop and think about my next trip.

    I’ve been over five times now with my best friend and can never get enough of the UK or it’s people.

    We rent a car every time so that we can get to the countryside and not be tied down to a tour, however, last September we found driving to be extremely frustrating getting lost more than ever before. It also seemed as if every UK driver needed to get to their destination at warp speed, and we had our first accident ever (no one was hurt). Any suggestions to make things easier?

    What did you do for cell phone service? We ended up buying a pay as you go phone, but thought the calls back to the states depleted are minutes quite rapidly.

    The weather did detract from our trip(rain the first five days) but for next time I’m thinking that we need to follow the good weather first even if it means changing our plans a bit. This could possibly necessitate changing reservations and lead to extra charges, but I think it would be worth it.

    Finding tourist information offices was not as easy as previously, even still we were able to find some great B&Bs just by accident or stopping at a B&B that had no availability to get a referral (this worked out great for us in Stratford-Upon-Avon).

    I have thought about trying to make the next trip more relaxing by dividing the country into areas and then concentrating on one area at a time to get the most out of being there instead of trying to cover the entire country in two weeks. This will mean either more trips over or staying for longer periods. Either way money becomes an issue. Any employment opportunities with Anglotopia? I’m ready!

    We really had no problem using our US credit cards and took 1500 pounds in cash that we were able to get at our local bank. Since this was not our first time over we did not go to shop. I would let people know that our trip cost approximately $3600 (all inclusive) for two weeks from Denver which offers direct flights to the UK nightly. Any suggestions on ways to cut costs would be appreciated?

    • avatar says

      The easiest thing you can do to make driving easier is to rent a Satnav (GPS device) with your rental. We did that this time and we almost never got lost and when we did it was because we weren’t using it! It’s worth the extra cost. We usually take our iPhones with an international roaming plan and just pay the extra costs to call back home – but for us it’s a business write-off. We also had a pre-paid UK phone for local calls. We didn’t call home much but when we did we just used Skype, which is free.

  15. avatar says

    I received my British Airways Chase card last year with the chip, I was very excited not to have to say it’s a swipe card to every British vendor, same problem you describe, However on further investigation Chase tell me that if I do use it with the pin number they will consider the purchase amount as a cash advance and fees will be charged…..do US bank really enjoy the risk of theft so much they discourage use of this secure method of payment. I wonder how many more major hackings it’s going to take to pay the money and go to the chip & pin system without fees!

  16. avatarJanet says

    I’ve replied to another post on Anglotopia about the shop opening times, and here it is again. I still don’t understand what you mean. Supermarkets are open all the hours God sends and there are many, many small express grocery shops open until late into the evening. As for ‘I don’t know when people who work do their shopping,’ I’m baffled as to what you mean. The only thing I can come up with is the fact that I live in Greater Manchester and, like other large urban areas, we have access to shops and services for long hours, seven days a week. Most overseas tourists to Britain tend to stay either in London (surely the shop opening hours are long enough there), or in rural areas. Now I can understand that in these rural areas shops and service hours are a lot shorter than those in large towns and cities. This is something we expect when we go on holiday in this country and therefore plan around it. That’s just how it is and we wouldn’t expect any different. As for me, when I’m at home I get my shopping delivered from Tesco’s (another option open to working people). With one hour time-slots, you can get your groceries delivered to most areas (you can even place an order in the USA before you got here, the time slots are open about three weeks in advance).

    • avatarMrsCintheUK says

      I also am stumped by the opening times thing – are people wanting to go shopping at 6.00 am/8.00 pm?? (and I presume not food shopping because, as you say, the supermarkets are open until late and most little corner shops are too). How on earth do we manage in the UK? Reading some of things posted on here really makes me feel like I live in a third world country!

    • avatarRJK says

      I was a little puzzled by that, too. My husband is from England and I came to “live” with him for a little while before he got his visa to come to the US. I didn’t find the hours all that odd (except for the mandatory Sunday hours).
      Then again, he is also from Greater Manchester.

  17. avatar says

    I’ve been planning an upcoming 3-wk trip this summer to England, revolving around the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in Leeds & York. I’ll also be visiting a few towns (villages? hamlets?) in Surrey where my family ancestors come from, very much looking forward to that. My goal is also to relax more this trip, but there are so many places I want to see! So wish we had the chip and pin cards available to us to use while there…and I’ve been noticing more and more B&Bs saying they will accept cash only.

  18. avatarSabrina L says

    I don’t know about the rest of the US, but the banks here in Wisconsin have debit cards, which after reading the description of a chip & pin card, sounds exactly the same. Although ‘chip & pin’ sounds so much cooler!
    Btw, love this site, & thank you so much for putting the links to all the contests on here. It is probably the only way I will ever get to go on my dream vacation to the UK! On the bright side, Eddie Izzard is doing 2 shows here in Milwaukee this summer; I could not be more excited!

    • avatar says

      They’re actually not the same. The chip & pin card has a chip in it that is read by the card reader, rather than the magnetic stripe. The chip can only be read by correctly entering the PIN.

  19. avatarAngela says

    The bread: yes! So good! I’ve been to England twice, and I’ve remarked to friends and family in the US about the bread in England. They’ll have to experience it themselves.

    Love your site!

  20. avatar says

    I’ve been visiting the UK annually since 1976, sometimes twice a year, and in all those years I had two days of rain… Perhaps the UK loves me and the weather wants me to come back, or I’ve been incredibly lucky, I don’t know :)
    My last visit was in December and I can’t wait to go back!

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