Amsterdam

On The Road Travel Essays

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Amsterdam

God created the earth — except for Holland which was created by the Dutch.
-Old Dutch saying
 

The economic fortune of the Dutch people has always been tied to the sea. This nation of fishermen who later became traders and explorers has forever been linked to the sea and its tides, and nowhere in the world is the rising and falling tides more important since much of the country is below sea level. In fact, in the entrance of the new Stadhuis, or town hall, in the Stopera complex in Amsterdam is a glass cylinder filled with water. The level of the water rises and falls according to the rise and fall of the tide. At high tide it rises to almost 7 feet above ground level. Hence, were it not for the sea wall and the city's defenses against these elements, Amsterdam would be flooded by the waters of the North Sea twice a day.

As early as the 12th century, the damming of rivers, the digging of dikes to channel water away and the building of windmills to pump the water into the dikes created polders, or drained areas of land. This damming and draining process was repeated throughout the country. In Amsterdam, a little fishing village built originally on terps, or small man-made mounds, protruding from the Amstel River began to grow. The growth of the village's population and the annual flooding of the Amstel necessitated the construction of a dam on the Amstel. Hence the town came to be known as Amstelledamme (Dam on the Amstel), later Amsterdam. The river encouraged trade from the sea, prosperity grew, famous banks were established, and by the 16th century, it had become the greatest city in Holland. Currently, the city has almost a million people. Amsterdam is the Netherlands' intellectual, cultural and nominal capital, although the Hague is its true political capital.

Amsterdam is sometimes known as "Venice of the North" for its many canals, which are arranged in a fan shape. There are more than 50 of these grachten (Dutch for canals), dividing the city into 100 islands linked by 400 picturesque bridges. The famous old houses of Amsterdam face these canals, so a canal boat ride is one of the best ways to view the city. Since land has always been scarce in canal-ribbed Amsterdam, houses have had to economize on space. Canal houses were often long and narrow because taxes were based on the width of the building's façade. No broad staircases in these homes, only steep, narrow ones. On moving days, furniture, appliances and household goods are hoisted to upper floors by pulleys. Notice the beams for these pulleys in the apex of the gables of the older houses.

With trade flowing through the city, Amsterdam is a shopper's paradise. There are many shopping venues, of which the most colorful and liveliest may be the Kalverstraat (no traffic, pedestrians only and close to Dam Square). Foreign restaurants are everywhere, especially those with Chinese or Indonesian dishes on the menu. The economic hub of the city is the harbor, second largest in the Netherlands (after Rotterdam): 24 miles of wharves, 360 cranes, 10 dry docks, and 800,000 square feet of warehouse space! The currency exchange business in Amsterdam is the third busiest in the world, after New York and London. The import/export business gives an international air to the city, and there is a variety of industries — shipbuilding and repair, clothing, diamond cutting and paper manufacturing.

The Golden Age of Holland occurred in the 17th century. Freed from Spanish rule, the country boomed to become the wealthiest nation in the western world. When Antwerp began to decline in influence and power, Amsterdam reaped the benefits. The diamond trade moved its expertise here. In 1609 the Bank of Amsterdam, the largest in the world at that time, was founded. Seven years earlier, the Dutch East India Company had formed the world's largest trading organization. In 1621, the spice trading industry was joined by the West India Company. Seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting clearly shows off the incomparable wealth of these Dutch merchants and businessmen. Internationally, Dutch power reached its height as the trading companies sent explorers around the world in search of new commercial ventures; e.g. Henry Hudson to the river that bears his name. Taiwan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the South African Cape, the Dutch West Indies (Curaçao, Saint Maarten, Aruba), northern Brazil, Manhattan Island (or Nieuw Amsterdam); all were once part of the Dutch colonial empire at its height. Culturally, in this age, grand canal houses were built along the Heren-, Keizers- and Prinsengrachts. It is also the age of some of the greatest painters in European history: Frans Hals, Vermeer and Rembrandt.

Perhaps Amsterdam's greatest claim to fame is its people and their social consciousness. A youthful city, it has two universities. In the late 1960s, the city had the youngest population in Europe. Here, more than any other world city in the 1960s and 70s, radicalism was born and Amsterdam became the center of the hippie movement. The Provos, short for provocateurs, were a group of radicals who grew up in response to the city's chronic housing shortage. It was their aim to provoke the members of the comfortable middle classes, often by shock tactics, into taking an interest in and responsibility for social issues. One approach that forced the government to react was the Provos' use of squatting. The squatters were frequently found doing their thing in the well-to-do neighborhoods surrounding Vondelpark. The successors to the radical Provo Movement were the 1970's peaceful campaigners called Kabouters. The success of these movements is demonstrated by today's high level of social consciousness in Amsterdam and the rest of the Netherlands.

This sort of radicalism led to Amsterdam's reputation as the home of individual freedom, a place where one could do anything. The city became a magnet for youth from all over the world. That reputation is changing as the authorities have cracked down on some of the perceived excesses of Amsterdam's lifestyle, but there is still a pervasive feeling of individuality and social tolerance in the city.

Flowers  More than any other Dutch goods, the Netherlands is famous for its flowers. Since the introduction of tulips into this country from Turkey 500 years ago, the Netherlands has been the center of the world's flower markets. In the 1630s, the power of the flower became so absurdly inflated that four tulip bulbs could command the same price as a merchant's house in Amsterdam. "Tulipomania" was only stopped by government intervention at the end of that decade, but flowers have never ceased to play a major part in the Dutch economy and indeed the Dutch identity. Just south of Schiphol Airport is the town of Aalsmeer, where the world's largest flower auction takes place every weekday. Every year from mid March till late May in Keukenhof, a park west of Leiden, the nation's main bulb-producing region, the Dutch stage one of the world's largest open-air flower shows. It is not just tulips but also daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths. In recent years, Zomerhof with summer bulbs and tubers such as gladioli, dahlias, lillies and begonias has also been staged at Keukenhof in late summer. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see this extraordinary floral extravaganza. The Netherlands annually exports two billion tulip bulbs and 800 million flowering tulips. Tulips, however, only rank fourth in Dutch horticultural production. Roses are number one. The Aalsmeer Flower Auction sells millions of roses weekly. The world horticultural show called the Floriade, another flower exhibit simply too big to contemplate, is staged every ten years.

Canals  Amsterdam is frequently called the "Venice of the North." A glance at the city map shows that it is made up of a spider's web of concentric canals. It has more canals than Venice (160) and three times as many bridges. For the most part the excavation of the ditches, the underpinning of the canal walls and the building of the bridges were done by convicts. The great canals Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht were built in the early 17th century, at the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Officially, there are 2,400 houseboats in the city, but the actual figure is probably much higher. Amsterdam has 22 miles of quays. The traditional role of the canals as Amsterdam's unofficial rubbish bin continues, but you are less likely to notice since canals are pumped clean every couple of days.

Evening canal boat rides leave from a number of landings, normally on the Singelgracht or from the Rokin or the Prins Hendrikkade opposite Central Station. The boats are glass-covered and this sometimes makes it difficult to get a good picture through the windows. Occasionally there are light refreshments on board. The city seems to take on a different personality from the water when the buildings and bridges are lit up at night. The canals look quite different, and the cruise can be quite beautiful and relaxing.

Diamonds  Amsterdam and Antwerp are two of Europe's great diamond cities. In fact, it was Antwerp merchants who brought the diamond industry here with them in the late 16th century. Some of the famous diamonds cut in Amsterdam include the 108-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond that adorns Queen Elizabeth II's crown and the Cullinan diamond, the world's largest uncut diamond at 3,025 carats, from which the First and Second Stars of Africa came and which are also included in the English Crown Jewels.

SIGHTSEEING IN AMSTERDAM

The seventeenth century architectural feature that defines not just Amsterdam but all of the Netherlands is the decorated gables of houses. Look up as you walk along the canals and see the various gable styles, from simple step to bell shapes, neck shapes and gables with pilaster fronts topped by a pediment. They differ according to wealth, fashion, construction date and the whim of owners and builders. Together the gables provide a very beautiful architectural rhythm to the skyline. At the street level, architecture in Amsterdam is really fairly plain. The best advice is simply to look up.

Anne Frank's House  In the shadow of the steeple of the Westerkerk, on the Prinsengracht is, perhaps, the most famous hiding place in history. At the top of a narrow staircase is a secret passage leading to the achterhuis. This is where the Frank family, German Jews who had left Nazi Germany for Amsterdam in 1933, hid during the Nazi occupation between July 1942 and August 1944. They were then betrayed to the Germans and sent to Bergen-Belsen where the entire family, except for the father, died. Besides the father, the only other witness to their trying, self-imposed isolation was an astonishingly moving diary kept by his 13-year-old daughter Anne. Today, that journal is famous throughout the world for chronicling a teenager's life and emotions during these harrowing years. There is little actually to see apart from one or two of the original furnishings. The message of this place is far more striking than the place itself. The collection of anti-Semitic newspaper cuttings and letters from all over the world, some of them very recent, is hard-hitting.

Rijksmuseum  One of the great museums of the world, the Rijksmuseum houses an unrivaled collection of Dutch Masters including Frans Hals, Vermeer, Steen, ter Borch and Rembrandt. Rembrandt was prolific, leaving over 600 works which can be seen in museums all over the world. His most famous, a huge guild portrait, The Night Watch, is here in the Rijksmuseum. The themes in the Rembrandt collection vary from portraiture, including a famous series of self-portraits, to biblical scenes. His works are instantly recognizable for their subtle movement between light and shade, emotional warmth, sometimes even a sort of mystical spirituality. Since his style and techniques were so individualistic, he had very little influence on subsequent painters.

Van Gogh Museum  Located nearby in the Museum Quarter is the Van Gogh Museum which opened in 1973. This museum is home to a collection of two hundred of van Gogh's paintings, five hundred of his drawings and about 850 letters written by van Gogh. The Bedroom at Arles, Crows in the Wheatfield, the Potato-Eaters, Vase with Sunflowers and his Pietá are some of his most well-known masterworks that are on display here.

The Begijnhof  If you are shopping on the Kalverstraat, you may want to "pop in" for a visit to Amsterdam's Begijnhof. This type of communal residence is only found in the Benelux countries, and Amsterdam's dates back to 1346. It originally was a sanctuary for Begijntjes, a sisterhood of Catholic lay-women who lived in community but did not take religious vows. They educated the poor and nursed the sick of the city. Amsterdam's oldest wooden house (1420) is located here at No. 34. Houses No. 29-30 in this square were a clandistine Catholic chapel during the intolerance of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Engelise Kerk (English Church) is believed to have been used by the Pilgrim Fathers before they returned to England and sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620).

Museum Amstelkring  The fact that the Dutch have valued the rights of individuals is a tradition with a long history. In most recent times there was the tolerance for the Provo Movement in the 60s and 70s. This was preceded by the defiance of the Nazis by the Dutch people who hid Jewish families during the occupation and by 1941 the protest of dockworkers and transport workers against the Nazi's treatment of Jews. Centuries earlier, after the Alternation (Protestant Reformation), Catholics were expelled from the country. However, many of the faith stayed and worshiped in clandestine churches. While there were a number of these types of churches at the time, few have survived to this day. The Museum Amstelkring (1663), often referred to as "Our Lord in the Attic," today houses a canal house family's living quarters as well as the church and a display of religious vessels and objects.

The red light district, centered on Oude Zijds Voorburgwal and Achterburgwal together with the tiny alleyways nearby, is another of the tourist sights in the city. A walk through the red light district, especially at night, really isn't safe, and it is absolutely inappropriate to take photos of the women in the windows.

DRUGS AND THE DUTCH

The same street drugs are illegal here as anywhere else in the world. The difference here is that the police pursue a sensible policy of concentrating their resources on "hard" drugs, thus effectively turning a blind eye to "soft" drug use. (Equally sensibly, hard drug users are treated as medical cases rather than criminals.) Thus, soft drugs are readily available in many Dutch cities; and it is widely known that they are available in the coffee houses of Amsterdam, although this easy availability may no longer be as true as it once was. Recently, Dutch laws have required coffee houses to choose between serving drugs or alcohol. Most have chosen to serve alcohol since it is more profitable. Some cafes have split into two establishments; having one entrance for smokers and another entrance for those who imbibe.

In brief, Amsterdam is a city of contrasts — active, quiet; relaxing, surprising; beautiful, plain; busy, slow-paced; elegant, grungy; traditional, avant-garde; vulgar and sophisticated. Amsterdam zoo is the oldest and one of the best on the continent. The city's cultural facilities — museums, concert halls, theaters, cinemas — are world class. Its "football" (Americans read this as "soccer") team, Ajax Amsterdam, is one of the best and most famous teams in the world. The city has comparatively little crime. While it is not a paradise, it has everything you could want in a city. Except hills.

EXCURSIONS

Zaanse Schans  Just north of Amsterdam is the Zaanse Schans, a reconstructed open-air museum of a 17th-century Dutch village and its way of life. Developed in the 1950s along the Kalverringdijk on the bank of the river Zaan, this re-created village is composed of several windmills, about 40 houses and some craft museums. There's a variety of working windmills; one grinds corn to produce oil. There is a Clogmaker, or Klompenmakerij, who does demonstrations, a Cheesemaker, or Kaasmakerij, selling Gouda and Edam. Go to the clogmaker's, then perhaps to whichever windmill is open at the time. The houses of the village are inhabited by resident families and craftsmen. The houses, mostly 17th or 18th century, are specific to this region, the Zaanstreek. Made of wood, the houses have steep gables and are painted green. The gables, doors and windows are usually outlined in white, and the top of the gable is usually adorned by a pretty wooden ornament called a makelaar.

Volendam  The focus of visiting this little fishing village on the freshwater lake of IJsselmeer (formerly the Zuider Zee or South Sea ) is to take photos of its inhabitants in their traditional costumes worn specifically, (in the tourist season only), for your delight and edification. Every tourist brochure about the Netherlands has a picture of this sight so the costumes are not described here. The long main street, or the Haven, runs along the top of the dike and is filled with one tourist shop after another, selling clogs or dolls or pseudo-Delftware or lace shawls. In some of these shops they will, for a fee, let you dress up in local costume to have your picture taken.

Essentially, Volendam is to Dutch culture what a Flamenco class on the beach with complementary sangria is to Spain or the Stadtkeller folklore show in Lucerne is to Switzerland. During June or July especially, tourists flock here. In its defense, Volendam is very picturesque. There still are one or two working boats left (fishing for eels), white-painted bridges, some fishermen's cottages unchanged since the 18th century and charming, narrow cobbled lanes leading back from the main street. Picasso, Renoir and other artists stayed at the Hotel Spaander on the harbor and often paid their bills in drawings. The view of the silver waters of the IJsselmeer is beautiful and inspiring, especially on a sunny day.

The Hague  The nation's political capital, Den Haag, is home to its Parliament, the Peace Palace, and the Mauritshuis Museum. The Hague is the Dutch equivalent of Washington, D.C. Just as in the United States where we have cities, such as New York City and Los Angeles, that have eclipsed our national capital in population and fame, so it is with Amsterdam and den Haag. The city is the feudal home of the Counts of Holland, and its Binnenhof and Ridderzaal became the political center as the Netherlands grew and became independent. The Peace Palace completed in 1913 has hosted a number of international peace conferences. It houses the United Nations' International Court of Justice. The Mauritshuis is home to the Royal Picture Gallery. The collection may be small, but it has excellent works by the Old Masters, such as Rembrandt, ter Borch and Vermeer.

Nearby is the Dutch resort of Scheviningen. The Victorian style of some of the buildings in this North Sea coastal town hints of its heyday in the 19th century. The area is still a popular summer holiday destination with the Dutch and other Northern Europeans. Another favorite tourist stop in this region is Madurodam, a 1:25 scale representation of a city with miniatures of famous structures from all parts of the Netherlands.

Delft  Just say the name of this town and most people will conjure up a mental picture of the blue-and-white pottery which has been produced here for about four centuries. Delft is important in Dutch history as the headquarters of William of Orange during the 16th century revolt against Spanish rule. It is also the birthplace of the artist Jan Vermeer.

Visit the Oude Kerk and see the final resting place of Vermeer, van Leeuvenhoek (the inventor of the microscope) as well as early Dutch war heroes. The ornate tomb of William of Orange as well as the burial vaults of the Dutch royal family are located in the Nieuwe Kerk.

Rotterdam  The center of this city has some of Europe's most modern and innovative architecture because Rotterdam was a primary target of Nazi bombing in WWII. The city is strategically located at the mouth of the Rijn (Rhine) river on the North Sea. The city's center and harbor were destroyed in the war. Today, this harbor forms Europoort, the world's largest container port. Be sure to visit the Euromast, the tallest structure in the Netherlands. Enjoy a panoramic view of the city and port from its viewing platform which is laid out like a ship's bridge.

FOOD AND SHOPPING

Traditional Dutch meals are both satisfying and healthy, but consisting of modest ingredients. Most cafés and bars serve delicious snacks, such as portions of Dutch cheese served with mustard, bitterballen, a deep-fried meatball, uitsmijter, an open-face sandwich consisting of cheese or ham and an egg, fried sunny-side up, or marinated fresh herring. Lunch is generally nothing more than a snack in Holland, and only a few restaurants open in the afternoon. You can purchase French fries (Patates frites) with mayonnaise, hamburgers and pizza from street stalls or visit a pancake house to sample their local fare.

Dinner is the main meal in Amsterdam. Most restaurants generally close between 10 and 11pm. A typical menu may include Stamppot, a Dutch stew of mashed potatoes and vegetables with bacon and smoked sausage, Erwtensoep, a thick pea soup with smoked sausage and bacon, boiled Dutch ham served with white asparagus or Plaice (grilled fish) with vegetables and boiled potatoes. If you want to have a typical Dutch meal and to eat well in the Netherlands, you can do no better than a Rijsttafel. This Indonesian meal is a legacy of the days of the Dutch empire in the East Indies. Small portions of various meats, fish and shellfish are accompanied by a selection of sauces and heaping bowls of rice and noodles. It is Holland's equivalent of Indian food in England, Italian food in Germany or Mexican food in the U.S.

Try a Limburgse Vlaai, a pie made with bread dough and a fruit filling, or yogurt served with fresh fruit as a good and satisfying way to end a meal. Meanwhile, no Dutch meal is complete without a cup of steaming coffee or a frosty mug of beer. Please remember that smoking is prevalent in Amsterdam, and there are very few non-smoking areas, even in cafés and restaurants.

Brown Cafes are the quiet, old-fashioned, traditional Amsterdam cafes, largely male enclaves. They get their name from their tobacco smoke-stained walls and ceilings. Everywhere in this country the primary drinks are coffee, beer, jenever and Bols liquors. The nicest, most atmospheric brown cafes are located in the old and picturesque area of the city called the Jordaan. At their best, these brown cafes epitomize the famous Dutch word gezellig; there is no real English equivalent but it is something more or less like the German gemütlich. An unsatisfactory translation might be "cozy." If, on the other hand, you are looking for more modern and upscale "designer" bars, then it is the white cafes for you.

Shopping in Amsterdam can be as interesting as it is fun. Specialist shops are filled with unique items that can't be bought anywhere else in the world. Discover exotic fabrics, handmade dolls, unusual games, kites, beads, wooden shoes, antiques, books and much more on a shopping adventure into these establishments. In addition to the small specialist shops, there are department stores, malls and markets. Seasonal flowers are available at the Bloemenmarkt, located near the Mint Tower on the Singelgracht. The Waterlooplein flea market is always a lively and popular shopping experience. In general, store hours are 9am to 6pm on weekdays and until 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Select shops (avondwinkels) that sell essential items remain open later in the evening.

PRACTICAL STUFF

Characteristic of its coastal location and northern latitude, Amsterdam experiences sunny, mild summers (with occasional cloudbursts) and wet, chilly winters. The winter temperature rarely drops low enough to freeze the city's canals. When this happens, an exciting ice-skating race is held on the canals through eleven Dutch cities; remember the story of Hans Brinker!

March  Temperature 30ºF to 55ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 4
Monthly Rainfall 2.3"

July  Temperature 60ºF to 78ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 7
Monthly Rainfall 2.5"

October  Temperature 42ºF to 59ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 3
Monthly Rainfall 3"

January  Temperature 30ºF to 40ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 2
Monthly Rainfall 2.8"

Synchronize your watches  Local time is 6 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 2:00pm in New York City, it's 8:00pm locally. Please note that Amsterdam changes to and from daylight-saving time a few weeks before the U.S., so time differences can vary more in March and October.

Money, money, money  The Netherlands is a member of the European Union and the unit of currency is the Euro. Similar to the rest of the European Union, there is no better way than to use your ATM card to withdraw money in the local currency whenever you need it. You will never have a problem locating a suitable ATM machine. If you do need to exchange dollars (cash or traveler's checks) for euros, try to do so at a bank. You can expect a slightly higher rate of exchange for traveler's checks, and you should always keep your passport handy. Some shops, especially touristic ones, will accept American currency or traveler's checks as payment but be advised that you will almost certainly be getting a much worse exchange rate than you would from a bank. The same is true for hotels that are willing to change money for you; and even if they will do it, it's usually cash only, no traveler's checks.

The joy of servitude  Restaurant checks always include a service charge, but it's still customary to leave a few additional euros behind in a café and an additional 5% of the total bill in other restaurants. In the fancier restaurants, an additional tip of 5% to 10% is correct.

Not another 5 minute walk  Your feet, naturally, will be your prime means of transportation through Amsterdam. The city's finest sights are generally fairly concentrated in a small enough area, making walking between them both a possibility and a pleasure. It isn't always the case, though, and when the time comes that your feet start to object and then actively rebel, there are various easy alternatives that can appease your aching, blistered toes. Bicycles are common in Amsterdam, and there is an integrated network of bicycle lanes throughout the city. Bicycle Hire Shops are readily found throughout the city and with a small deposit, you can rent a bike. Another mode of transportation is the tram system. Tickets for the tram, sold in strips of ten (strippenkarte) are available at the GVB, VVV's and at news agents where you will also find free transport maps that show you the route of each tram line. Although there is an underground metro system, this system is geared more towards commuters than tourists. In the city, only three lines have (four) stations, all of which are located on the east side.

The mailman cometh  Mail service to and from the Netherlands is reliable and inexpensive, however, sending a parcel abroad will be expensive. You can purchase postage stamps (postzegels) at post offices, although it can be quicker at tobacconists. Post offices are usually open from 9am-5pm Monday through Friday.

Please wait while we try to connect you  The golden rule is never call home from your hotel; it will cost a fortune. Public telephones are easy to find and easy to use. Phonecards can be purchased at post offices, newsagents and railway stations. To phone the United States, dial 001 followed by the number.

The access code to put you through to an ATT operator from the Netherlands is 0800 022 9111. For MCI it is 0800 022 9122.

HOLIDAYS
New Year (January 1)
Good Friday/Easter Sunday/Monday (late March/early April)*
Queen's birthday (April 30)
Liberation Day (May 5)
Ascension Day (late May/early June)*
Whit Sunday/Pentecoste Sunday (late May/early June)*
Whit Monday (late May/early June)*
Christmas Day (December 25)
Christmas Holiday (December 26)
* These dates will change according to the date on which Easter falls.

CELEBRATIONS
February and March (Amsterdam Carnival)
June (Holland Festival of dance, music and drama)
Late August (Uitmarkt. Three-day fair heralding cultural season)
Early September (Flower parade)
Mid-September (Ten-day folk music celebration on the streets)

Did you know?  An extraordinary 17% of the Dutch budget is spent on education. This is the only country in the world with 0% illiteracy. Almost everybody speaks English and German, and probably French and Spanish and Italian as well.

Did you know?  Santa Claus is a Dutch tradition. His real name is St. Nicholas of Myra, or Sinter Klaas, and he is the patron saint of little children and of Amsterdam. He arrives in the city by boat from Spain every year, landing at Amsterdam harbor. He is always accompanied by his slave Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. According to legend, he is supposed to punish the naughty children (a serious problem for Holland's non-racist reputation). During the night of December 5, he sneaks into people's houses and secretly puts presents in clogs left by the fireplace for the children to find the next day. When the Dutch had possessions in America in the 17th century, they introduced this tradition in the United States. Over the years, Sinter Klaas has evolved into the familiar figure we call Santa Claus.

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