Teaching English on a Private Plane, and Civilised Pirates

The last week has been both wonderful and surprising in equal measure.

After a week of shying away from my novel, instead reading in every spare second I had or diligently preparing new lessons, I finally returned to it. The break was incredibly useful. Instead of the laborious effort I had found the first 15,000 or so words to be, my characters came to life on their own, and I actually enjoyed taking the time to craft their story. The first seven chapters felt like slowly pulling barbed wire out of tar. I knew what I needed to do to ‘open’ the story, and I found it a little tiresome. Largely, I’m sure, as I wasn’t sure how I actually wanted it to end.

After emailing the first 23,000 words to Tom for feedback though, he insisted that I decide, so I did. Just like that. I’d been avoiding it, not wanting to get stuck with a plot or concept I later turned against, but I finally just got on with it and planned out the entire plot in detail. The children reacted differently to each other when I explained why I was always typing. Seventeen year old Rupert seemed impressed. Too right. Fourteen year old Lisa, however, sniggered! ”You are writing about your adventures?!” Brat. She’s great though – stoic and smart (and into horses. Definite bonus as far as I’m concerned).  I really like all of them, and am actually a little jealous of the tutor who will be taking over from me in September, and moving to Moscow to teach them full time. Not jealous enough to contemplate going myself; but I like them.

On Monday, we went to Sardinia. I was told where we were going, that it would be for a few days, and that we would be going on their yacht, but when the driver pulled into Grosseto airport I was… surprised! “Er, we fly?” “Yes, of course”. Of course. Duh. Of course we’re going to get on a private jet and fly to your yacht, then cruise along to Corsica for lunch, then on to Bonifacio for dinner. Of course!

The private plane

Anchoring at Bonifacio

The private plane was like being in a flying living room. Instead of the usual plastic the interior was covered in fabric, like ivory hessian, the carpets and leather seats were a pale caramel, and the walls and other surfaces were glossy varnished wood. The tables were spread with white tablecloths, and bottles of Evian and bowls of fresh fruit were laid out next to every chair. My coffee came with a large plate of Italian biscuits, and a second plate of Russian sweets. Nobody put seatbelts on when we took off and landed, and there was just a curtain – left open – leading to the cockpit. The children were completely au fait with the whole thing. ‘Like yawn – private jet again? Oh well, guess that’s okay’. It reminded me of flying with my father when I was little, when I’d be allowed to sit in the jump-seat behind him as he powered the plane into the sky.

I remember being fascinated by the view through the cockpit window, as Dad named the different islands we flew over in the day, and named the stars for me at night. I think most little girls hero-worship their fathers, but to be honest I still do. I think both of my parents are incredibly people, and I often feel guilty that they got stuck with me for a daughter!

On Monday morning we had a lesson in the air, snaffling sweets and biscuits together on the family’s jet, then played chess as we flew over mountains and Italian farmland. In the afternoon, lessons took place on the top deck of their yacht (well, most of the lessons. Rupert spent the afternoon asleep on the sofa, so had to miss his. “Rupert?” “Unh?” “Are you asleep?” “Unh.” Boys eh.) Not quite as exciting as sailing on a pirate galleon with Cap’n Jack Sparrow, but we can’t have everything we want.

The view from the upper deck

Winning at chess. Yes, of course I photographed it!

On Tuesday evening we anchored at Porto Cervo (Sardinia), and the family and crew were surprised to see pop-up designer stores had been set up all along the quay since they were last there. We peered at them, curious, as a crowd of people gathered to watch us (well, the crew) negotiate the yacht into a ‘parking space’ between the others. “Oh look, it’s a Harrods!” Someone noticed. The trees and bushes sparkled with fairy lights, sports cars were on display between the shops, and glass boxes glowed from within, trying to entice the super-rich through their doors. The family disappeared for a couple of hours, and returned laden with Prada and Miu Miu shopping bags (I wanted to yell out a suitable pirate curse/ greeting as they trotted on board with their bags, then find myself some rigging to climb, but I didn’t.) I just about managed to console myself with thoughts of a little designer present I’ve promised myself when I return to London.

My first sight of Porto Cervo

Harrods followed me to Italy. Just WAIT Harrods. I’ll buy the handbag when I get home!

Some sort of art installation. You can just see the yacht I was on in the background.

On Wednesday we passed another, even larger yacht, which incited great excitement on board. It turned out that the sixty metre-long monster, with five decks and a helicopter on top, used to belong to them. In fact, they’d built it. In the evening we watched The Great Gatsby in Russian, as the sun set and the yacht was driven back to port. Luckily I happened to have read the novel the day before I arrived in Tuscany, so could follow it (the only Russian I’ve learn is ‘porhah’ which means ‘bad’) but it was a little surreal. It seemed a lot more sinister in Russian! It was night when we returned to the port, and an incredibly firework display was exploding in the sky above us. It went on for about half an hour, at the end of which all the yachts let off an impromptu volley of horn blasts.

Impromptu fireworks

The yacht itself was stunning. The living areas were beautifully decorated in shades of grey, cream and tan, and the rest of the interior lined with mahogany. Cashmere blankets folded over the backs of chairs (1,300 euros each, the crew told me), and expensive cushions to sink into. Everything had a place, with no clutter or awkward corners, and the crew ensured that we always had everything we wanted – a steady supply of snacks and drinks were kept up between meals. There were also small fridges dotted around, discreetly hidden in cupboards, so we could help ourselves if we wanted to. My cabin was small but not cramped, and the bathroom… ah, the bathroom! The shower was lined in white marble (really, truly!) and it was crammed with Molton Brown toiletries.  Heaven. Though the motion of the boat did make it feel a little like showering in a lift.

The crew didn’t stop working for a second, constantly refolding towels, discreetly cleaning, and organising anything the family asked for. When we weren’t at sea, the family spent a lot of time on various beaches, or playing with their jet-ski and jet-surfer, to name but two of the million or so fancy water-toys on board. They were surprised that I didn’t want to join them, and I was frequently asked why I didn’t go to the beach at the villa, but I really wasn’t that bothered. I was perfectly happy reading by the pool, or on the yacht, and otherwise wanted only to get on with writing. Beaches to me are for holidays, so I’d prefer to save them for when I’m actually on holiday myself. What do you think – should I have just enjoyed myself?!

The children were reluctant to give up their holiday time for lessons, but I nevertheless heard very few complaints from them. (aside from eight year old Emily – I had a few sulks from her!) They would sometimes give me excuses for having lessons ‘later’, which I typically acceded to rather than make them miserable, but I was very impressed by how well-mannered and hard-working they were.

I wouldn’t do it again! But I’m glad I did it this once.

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Tuscany Teaching Update: Making Animal Noises and A-Level Economics

I thought I’d update you on how my lessons have been going, and explain how tutoring differs from normal teaching.

I genuinely enjoy tutoring and find it hugely rewarding, but there’s a lot more to it than just teaching. It requires a LOT of different skills.Your teaching has to be adaptable, for a start. No lesson plan is infallible, and effective lessons frequently have to be developed on the spot, depending on the unexpected requests of both parents and students. Sometimes an extra child will appear, a friend or neighbour who happens to be visiting, and it becomes a group lesson – different lesson format, teaching style and content are required. They may not be the same level, or even the same age.

That has happened here; the fourteen year old (we’ll call her Lisa) has two lessons each day, and a neighbour’s son appears every afternoon to join in with the second of these. They enjoy working together, but have completely different skills. The boy (‘Matt’) barely seems to understand a word I say, but (after Lisa’s translation of my instructions) his writing surprised me by proving to be imaginative and literary. Lisa’s comprehension and vocabulary are actually pretty good, but her writing is logical and practical, and lacks Matt’s creative flair. I stick to comprehension in the mornings therefore, so that Lisa and I can discuss poems and newspaper articles, and creative writing tasks in the afternoon so that she and Matt can share vocabulary and work on written composition together.

Sometimes your student will be bored by a topic, or have already completed a practise exam paper at school for example, so again you have to adapt. Sometimes a task proves too difficult, or too easy – it has to be changed on the spot. You also have to manage the expectations of the family, and get on with them – you need to be likeable as well as well-presented and respectable (well, I try). You have to monitor progress, to ensure success is guaranteed but the student still enjoys the lessons, and learns useful skills as well as how to pass an exam. I also have to sell the agency, promoting the different services we offer, which does not dovetail as easily with being a tutor as you may think. It’s a bit like being two different people.

I have to be nice and silly with younger students (animal noises and impressions are standard fair), adopt an academic vernacular for my older students to mirror whilst still being ‘cool’ enough (ha) for them to want to listen to me, and then resume a professional, business-like manner for their parents. I’m finding this even more difficult in Tuscany, as every member of the family additionally has a different level of English. When I talk to them together I have to take this into account, and when I teach the children one after another I have to remember to alter my vocabulary, phrasing and speed accordingly. Luckily my hopelessness with two year old Fred was subtly noted, so when I offered to tutor seventeen year old Rupert instead… the family agreed! I lack the words to express quite how happy this made me. Let’s just say that actual skipping occurred afterwards.

I also like surprising my students into enjoying themselves at the same time as learning. “Today’s lesson will be in the garden” is one of my favourite lines; I love watching confusion turn to incredulity, before delight beams out of their faces. Some of my students’ greatest progress has been outdoors. That makes me sound like Miss Jean Brodie, I know, but it works. Matt and Lisa couldn’t believe their luck when I marched them out to the pool for their second lesson together, so we could write a story about being attacked by an insect by a swimming pool. For the majority of my students though, learning to enjoy a subject they are underachieving in, and even to enjoy learning itself, is not enough. They have exams to pass, and specific skills to master.

Short stories, for example, require a very specific format. Maintain a simple plot by limiting time passing and travel/ movement, and instead focus on description by ensuring you describe every object, person and place. If you want to set a story on a railway platform, then you cannot leave the platform. “But…!” (they all cry out the first time, confused and horrified) No buts. Setting such limitations forces students to think, and they learn to write well. Mine are not the only methods that work, but I know how to get the best out of students if they follow my rules, and my success rate speaks for itself. Saying that, I can’t teach all students. I am not suited to those who lack intelligence, or who do not strive to prove themselves. Not because they cannot be taught, but because I simply do not understand them. Tom, however, is very good at coaxing those who lack drive or academic aptitude into achieving wonderful things… a skill which I am incredibly jealous of!

Lessons with Lisa are going well. Her English needs a lot of work, but she’s smart and wants to improve. Her eight year old sister (‘Emily’) hardly speaks any English at all and is resistant to learning it, so our lessons have been a challenge. She’s slowly coming round though, as she’s realised that she actually has to speak English to communicate with me. Her favourite phrases are ‘come and play’, ‘come and swim’ and ‘look at me!’ I have not taught her these – I’ve been trying to teach her prepositions – but she’s learnt them somehow and uses them a LOT. Rupert’s lessons are taking a fair amount of preparation, as he will be taking A Level Economics from September, so has asked to focus on this. We’re only discussing and analysing newspaper articles, but I’ve discovered that I have an utter dearth of knowledge in this particular field. It’s fascinating though, once you get past the associated boredom.

I never really grasped before that the government and the Bank of England actually control and help the economy. Mark Carney’s decision to restrict interest rates until unemployment rates fall, for example… well, yeah – that makes sense! I’d always assumed that banks were simply run like businesses, always aiming to get as much money out of people as possible. Likewise the government – the more tax people pay the more money the government has to spend on what it thinks it should spend money on, right? Well, it seems there’s a bit more to it than that. All of you who actually understand Economics are rolling your eyes at me right now, I know, but I really never thought about it before! I totally get GDP now as well. Check me. Another obvious one? Well Rupert didn’t know anything about it, and he’s about to take an A Level in this crazy subject!

I’ll always be drawn to the Arts and Humanities, because the right-hand side of my mind works better than the left; a well-oiled machine rather than a rusty (but not broken!) mangle. I can’t help but be intrigued by the Sciences though, in a voyeuristic fashion. As a teacher, you’re always learning new things.

Does anybody else teach in a school, or tutor privately? What are your favourite methods for enthusing your students?

My afternoon lesson. Who says you can’t teach dogs to talk?

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The Storm Before the Calm

I felt like scarpering back to London on more than one occasion in my first 24 hours of being in Tuscany, but things have definitely improved!

I was filled with trepidation before we even left London, as a thousand panicked thoughts had been swimming around my mind for months. When I finally arrived the family were mysteriously absent, having decided to stay another night on their yacht, and left the help to settle me in. As soon as I was told this on arriving at the villa I asked my taxi driver to wait, dumped my bags, and headed straight back to the nearby town where Tom was staying for a few days. Discovering that I would unexpectedly have to share a room with the nanny… well, let’s just say that absolute panic would be an understatement (I’m an only child! I haven’t shared a room with anyone, ever, except my fiancé!), so poor Tom had to spend the evening placating me.

We had a lovely meal, at a restaurant located in the medieval part of the town. It was set in a tiny walled courtyard, lined with terracotta pots full of rosemary and lavender. After a couple of glasses of red wine I started to calm down, and noticed the way the evening light turned all the stonework to amber, honey, copper and gold, and the gentle breeze that whispered away the heat. I got a taxi back to the villa as late as I was allowed to, promising to see Tom as soon as the first day’s lessons had concluded.

The trouble with placements like this is that you don’t know the rules. Every family have their own code they follow, their own habits and unspoken agreements. Every nationality differs, every religion; and we tutors are generally expected to work it out for ourselves. The next morning the chef made me breakfast (I’m just going to throw that in there and leave it, like I think it’s perfectly normal having a chef preparing all my meals for me). Nobody seemed to know when the family were due to return (though nobody really speaks English here, so this conversation was problematic in itself.) I then received an email explaining that they would return in about four hours so, having already prepared my lessons for that day in advance, I grabbed my book and selected a sun lounger by the pool in clear sight in case I was wanted. Lunch came and went, and a few more hours passed.

I was enjoying the warmth and the sunshine, and the murmur and trickle of water from the pool, but I was on edge all day waiting to do my job (I like my job, I understand it, and that gives me strength and confidence). 5pm came and went but then, just as I was about to get ready to go and meet Tom, I was summoned! It was lovely of them, really, but it was not at all what I needed: I got a phone call from the family inviting me to spend the evening with them on their yacht, so we could meet and get to know each other a bit better before lessons started. It was a kind and thoughtful idea, but the last thing I wanted at that moment. Apart from being instructed that I would need a swimming costume, all I was told was that they would collect the two year old and myself from their private beach shortly. I’m not good at not knowing what’s going on. It panics me.

The nanny showed me the way and brought the two year old (let’s call him Fred), and I followed as nonchalantly as I could. We wandered along the shoreline past sunbathing adults and children splashing and laughing in the shallows. I still had no idea what was going on, but then a rather large yacht ploughed towards us, and stopped about a hundred metres off shore. It nosed to the left a bit, then to the right, then seemed to stop as if confused. A small speedboat detached itself, and came closer. At this point it all got a bit mad. The nanny took all her clothes off (little ‘Fred’ was already naked but she had a bikini on, don’t worry), ditched her phone, and WADED INTO THE OCEAN carrying a child now bawling in panic.

“Er.. are we… we go in the sea? Now?” I asked. “Yes, come”. Was the only reply. The speedboat was still a good twenty metres from shore, and I had a BAG with a phone and STUFF in it. I contemplated for a second whether I should leave the bag behind as we were clearly swimming to the bloody boat, then reasoned that the nanny was a little old for such crazy shenanigans and Fred too young, so my possessions should be safe held about my head. Right. Luckily I’d put a bikini on under my clothes, as I had to strip, wade into the sea up to my chest, then clamber aboard the boat. Fred was placed into the arms of his older brother (we’ll call him Rupert) but continued to scream (because he was being kidnapped by strangely-familiar pirates, obviously), and the captain remarked wryly to me “well, that was exciting”. I think I replied with something witty like “ha, yeah”. Cool.

View from the top deck. Trying not to give anything private away whilst still showing you a shot of amazingness.

Seconds later we stepped on-board the yacht. It was huge, and beautiful, and the crew did absolutely everything possible to ensure everyone had anything they wanted at every moment. It would have been a delightful evening if I hadn’t been desperate to get back in time to see Tom (taxis don’t work after 10pm here it seem) and miserable at the prospect of not being able to. As it turned out though luxury only travels at ten knots per hour, and we didn’t get back until 9.30pm, so I had to give up on my Tom-visiting-hours. Luckily I’d been provided with a 1000mg paracetamol on the yacht to stave off a headache, so before my lip even quivered when I was finally alone, I passed out.

The next day I finally began teaching and, back in my comfort zone, my mood lifted immeasurably. It’s also quite impossible to be anything less than happy when the sun never stops shining, you spend your days in beautiful surroundings, all your meals are delicious and freshly prepared for you, and the people you are with are thoughtful, sweet, and welcoming! Here’s a photo I took of the pool, just to give you a taster. More details to follow very soon, I promise.

Has anyone else ever been on a working holiday? How did you find it?

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Working – and Writing – in Tuscany

I’ll be working in Tuscany for the next three weeks. It’ll be tough, but someone has to do it.

I should probably explain what I do to put food on the table, and lots of pretty shoes under it (these are all my shoes, just so we’re clear – I haven’t been keeping a fleet of well-shod children from you). Tom and I run an academic private tuition agency, and teach a fair bit ourselves. We started off just teaching, then realised that we actually knew what it would take to run a pretty good agency.  We know what a good tutor looks like, and where to find them, and we provide training, resources and advice bourn of our own experience.

In case anyone doesn’t know what private tuition involves (I didn’t, before someone offered me money to do it) I travel to students’ houses, and give them extra academic help, usually with English comprehension and composition. Most lessons are an hour at a time, once a week, mostly helping them to prepare for 11+ exams. We offer tutors for all subjects at all levels, but the biggest demand is for 8-13yr olds taking entrance exams to get into private secondary schools (English, Maths, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning primarily, though also Latin, French and Science for 13+). I’m pretty amazing at A Level tuition, if I do say say so myself  (all my students go from C/Ds to As or A*s, and a fair few have actually got 100% on both exams and coursework), but I specialise in the 11+ as I also get on really well with 9-10yr olds. We seem to be on the same brain-wave. Worryingly.

I’ll be teaching for a family at their private Tuscan villa until the end of August. Two Russian girls, aged seven and fourteen, who will be starting at an English school in two years so need a bit of extra help. I’ve also been asked to spend half an hour each day with their two year old brother. I was rather nonplussed by this, as I didn’t actually know two year olds could talk. Apparently they can though… any advice would be welcome! We actually provide a lot of holiday tutors over summer, and also arrange for the occasional full-time teacher to move to Moscow. There’s a high demand in Russia for experienced English tutors, especially those from a public school background; Old Etonians with an Oxbridge degree are like gold dust (if any Oxbridge-Etonians are reading this and fancy being sold to the Russians, please do get in touch).

I don’t usually do holiday placements myself, as I have a regular stable of London students and it’s nice to have the odd holiday of my own when they’re away, but with a wedding to pay for and a novel to finish, this one seemed too good to pass up. I’ll be teaching four hours per day, split between the morning and afternoon. Beyond marking homework and preparing lessons, I’ll be keeping myself busy the rest of the time getting on with that novel I’ve been writing. Or haven’t been writing, more to the point. I’ve hardly touched it for the last four months, so I’m looking forward to having no distractions, or excuses. Hopefully on the beach or by the pool!

diary writing

Where do you do your best writing?

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The Drowned Man

I’ve seen some incredible pieces of theatre over the years, but this experience topped them all.

Punchdrunk have pioneered a immersive, site-specific style of theatre production since 2000, in which audiences roam through a set and experience the action as and when they happen upon it. They specialise in classic texts, Faust and The Masque of the Red Death being previous examples, and their current production is  inspired by Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck (I hadn’t heard of it, so you can have a smiley face sticker if you had). Titled The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, it’s set across four floors of an abandoned sorting office next to Paddington station, and snatches of two parallel narratives are played out simultaneously. The audience are all masked, and encouraged to wander freely and explore.

It’s amazing. Utterly. Amazing.

I admit that the dislocated glimpses of narrative are difficult to follow, but if you do what I did and don’t even bother trying, this becomes unimportant. Action is a pleasant surprise, rather than something you chase after (and you will literally have to chase after it, if you want to follow it). Some sequences sort of made sense, others were utterly mad. We watched an actress dress a mannequin in the dark, then wheel it through the studio and… rub herself against it. She then used a watch to kidnap an audience member. Another actor was chased by a small group of the audience (us included), as he shrieked with cuckolded grief and threw himself through a barely-lit desert, tore off all his clothes, then was baptised in a bath whilst weeping. I quite enjoyed the absurdity of it all, as it added an extra level of surrealism.

What made the production so particularly wonderful for me though was the set. We were quite content wandering through the building, and exploring the labyrinth of detailed spaces that have been created. Being interrupted by the actors added a frisson of excitement, and we would follow them until they led us somewhere new that we wanted to explore, but it was our own journey that mattered. A few of those we discovered that stuck in my mind were a forest of pine trees surrounded by decrepit caravans; a room layered with persian rugs and ornately carved wooden furniture; another full of dusty instruments, hand tools and ornaments woven from palm fronds; a western bar with small stage and performing drag-queen; a desert lit only by a huge neon sign, half-sunk in the deep sand; a hollywood-style dressing room, complete with feather boas and lipstick stained tissues; a workshop devoted to succulents; and a gentleman’s study with the expected leather chair, cryptic notepad and hat stand.

It was in this latter room that my friend James and I were interrupted in our snooping (and hat trying-on) by an actor in a white tuxedo jacket. We were sufficiently intrigued by the scene we witnessed to follow him up and down flights of stairs, through dark spaces and hidden doors. He was walking so quickly we had to jog to keep up, and I remarked at one point to James (who I stuck to like glue after losing everyone else we had come with) “he’s probably heading to the bar!” A minute later and we burst into that very sanctum. An actual bar is hidden at the centre of the warehouse (well, it’s in there anyway… I couldn’t actually locate it save by accident) that the audience are invited to visit, buy a drink in and remove their masks temporarily. Here we discovered two more of our party propping up the bar, and soon after the other missing pair stumbled in as well. Which was exciting in itself! Having lost each other in the darkness it felt like a reunion, but one in some strange dreamland given the different sights we had seen and experienced. “Have you seen the horse?!” Aidan asked me at one point. I had not, and did not, much to my disappointment. Having regrouped and downed a few gins, we remasked and headed back into the darkness.

The white Bauta masks all audience members are required to wear added yet another dimension to the production. Skeletally pronounced cheekbones, dark, empty eye-sockets and a pointed, beak-like jaw with no mouth became familiar, but were unequivocally creepie. We became both anonymous and a part of the performance; feeling able to walk up to actors and observe them closely, as well as to study each other’s responses. As fascinating as the action, was the license to observe the behaviour of the audience. Usually if you catch someone staring at you they immediately look away, embarrassed and fearful of confrontation. This does not happen at a Punchdrunk performance. New groups formed like packs of wild animals, brought together in the hunt with nothing in common except a shared interest in proceedings. If you get too close to the actors, they will also take this as a sign that you are willing to interact, and you’d better be ready! Speech is forbidden when masked, but I was both danced with and kidnapped by different actors, so if you prefer to observe only then don’t get too close.

We were eventually ushered into a room filled with white faces, in front of a stage where the grand finale played out. As the audience began to applaud, the actor in the white tuxedo reached for my hand, and without thinking I entwined my fingers with his. I panicked, a little, (obviously) but nevertheless trusted him completely. A few other people were similarly led away by the cast, and I could also sense Tom hot on our heels! I was led back into the now-deserted bar, where the actor gently removed my mask for me, and smiled. I felt bizarrely elated, laughing and smiling with him. He thanked me profusely for coming (my manners kicked in but any wit or intellect I possess abandoned me), then left me.

We regrouped with most of our party outside (some were lost in the darkness, grateful texts the only evidence of their survival) and unanimously agreed that it had been an incredible experience. There’s so much more I could tell you, but you should really just see it for yourselves. Wear as little clothing as possible as it’s very, very hot, avoid glasses as the masks are difficult to wear over them apparently, and wear thinly-soled shoes – the feel of the changing floor under my ballet-pumps was thrilling, as sand gave way, bark chippings crunched, and puddles splashed.

The Drowned Man run is currently on until March, the run having been extended given its popularity. Just go! You won’t regret it.

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