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An Optimist in Spain

Written by Chris StewartAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Chris Stewart


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42568-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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  No sooner had Chris Stewart set eyes on El Valero than he handed over a check.  Now all he had to do was explain to Ana, his wife that they were the proud owners of an isolated sheep farm in the Alpujarra Mountains in Southern Spain.  That was the easy part.

Lush with olive, lemon, and almond groves, the farm lacks a few essentials—running water, electricity, an access road.  And then there's the problem of rapacious Pedro Romero, the previous owner who refuses to leave.  A perpetual optimist, whose skill as a sheepshearer provides an ideal entrée into his new community, Stewart also possesses an unflappable spirit that, we soon learn, nothing can diminish.  Wholly enchanted by the rugged terrain of the hillside and the people they meet along the way—among them farmers, including the ever-resourceful Domingo, other expatriates and artists—Chris and Ana Stewart build an enviable life, complete with a child and dogs, in a country far from home.


Chapter 1

El Valero

'Well, this is no good, I don't want to live here!' I

said as we drove along yet another tarmac road behind a row

of whitewashed houses. 'I want to live in the mountains, for heaven's sake, not in the suburbs of some town in a valley.'

'Shut up and keep driving,' ordered Georgina, the woman sitting beside me. She lit another cigarette of strong black tobacco and bathed me in a cloud of smoke.

I'd only met Georgina that afternoon but it hadn't taken her long to put me in my place. She was a confident young Englishwoman with a peculiarly Mediterranean way of seeming at ease with her surroundings. For the last ten years she had been living in the Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, south of Granada, and she had carved out a niche for herself acting as an intermediary between the farmers who wanted to sell their cortijos in the hills and move to town, and the foreigners who wanted to buy them. It was a tough job but no one who saw her ironing out deals with the coarsest peasant or arguing water rights with the most stubborn bureaucrat could doubt she was the woman for it. If she had a weakness at all it was in her refusal to suffer fools and ditherers.

'Do you bully all your clients like this?' I protested.

'No, just you. Left here.'

Obediently I turned the wheel and we shrugged off the last houses of Órgiva, the market town where I'd been adopted by my agent. We bumped onto a dirt track and headed downhill towards the river.

'Where are the mountains?' I whined.

Georgina ignored me and looked at the groves of oranges and olives on either side of the track. There were white houses covered in the scrags of last year's vines and decked with bright geraniums and bougainvillea; mules were ploughing; boiler-suited growers were bent bum-up amid perfect lines of vegetables; a palm tree shaded the road where hens were swimming in the dust. Dogs slept in the road in the shade; cats slept in the road in the sun. The creature with lowest priority on the road was the car. I stopped and backed up a bit to go round a lemon.

'Drive over lemons,' ordered Georgina.

There were, it was true, a hell of a lot of lemons. They hurtled past, borne on a stream of water that bubbled nearby; in places the road was a mat of mashed fruit, and the earth beneath the trees was bright with fallen yellow orbs. I remembered a half-forgotten snatch of song, something about a lovelorn gypsy throwing lemons into the Great River until it turned to gold.

The lemons, the creatures and the flowers warmed my heart a little. We drove on through a flat plain quilted with cabbages and beans, at the end of which loomed a little mountain. After dipping a banana grove, we turned sharp right up a steep hill with deep cuttings in the red rock.

'This looks more like it.'

'Just wait, we're not there yet.'

Up and up we went, bend after bend, the river valley spread below us like an aerial print. On through a gorge and suddenly we burst into a new valley. The plain we had crossed disappeared utterly, hidden from sight by the mass of mountain, and drowned by the roaring of the river in the gorge below.

Far below, beside the river, I caught sight of a little farm in a horseshoe-shaped valley, a derelict house on a cactus-covered crag, surrounded by unkempt fields and terraces of ancient olive trees.

'La Herradura,' Georgina announced. 'What about that, then?'

'Well, it's nice to dream but the pittance we've got to spend is hardly going to buy us a place like that.'

'With the money you've got to spend you could afford that place and have some left over to do it up.'

'I don't believe you. You can't possibly be serious.'

I was incredulous because this was so far beyond my wildest hopes. I had come to Spain with a sum of money that would barely stretch to a garden shed in the south of England, expecting to buy at best a ruined house with perhaps a little patch of land.

'Well, there's no point in going any further. I'll have that one. Let's go down and see it.'

We pulled the car off the road and tripped down a path. I was so overwhelmed with excitement and delight that I felt sick. I picked an orange from a tree, the first time I'd ever done that. It was quite the most disgusting orange I'd ever eaten.

'Sweet oranges,' said Georgina. 'They're mostly sweet oranges here - good for juice. And the old men with no teeth like them.'

'This is it, Georgina. It's paradise. I want it. I mean, I'll buy it now.'

'It's not a good idea to be too hasty in these matters. Let's go and have a look at some other places.'

'I don't want to see anywhere else. I want to live here, and anyway I'm your client. Surely we do what I want, not what you want!'

We drove off, further into the valley, and Georgina took me to see a stone ruin that was slowly slithering down a hill towards a precipice. It was surrounded by rotting cactus, and groves of dead trees covered the dismal hill around it. A poisonous spring oozed from a clump of thorns at the bottom of the property.

'Hell no, what did you want me to see that place for?'

'It has its good points.'

'It has the advantage of being a long way from the nearest golf course, but more than that I cannot see.'

We moved on to look at a concrete blockhouse, a battery

chicken shed, a filthy hovel infested with bats, and a sort of cave littered with turds and old bits of newspaper.

'I don't want to see any more of this sort of thing. Let's go back to La Herradura.'

So we did, and I sat on a warm stone in the riverbed, dreaming one of those rare dreams that suddenly start to materialise around you, until Georgina intruded.

'I know it's very nice, Chris, but there are problems with La Herradura. It's owned by a number of people, and they don't all want to sell - and one of those who doesn't want to sell has access to a room he owns right plumb in the middle of the house. That could be inconvenient if not downright disagreeable. And then there's the matter of the water . . . '

Her words faded as we both turned our heads to catch a snatch of song rolling towards us along the riverbed. I made out the words 'frog' and 'crystal glasses' but the rest was lost in a gruff baritone. From behind a rock came a red goat with only one horn. It eyed us up for a moment, then performed that trick that has so endeared the goat to mankind since the beginnings of time, the simultaneous belch and fart.

'Clever the way they do that, isn't it?'

Georgina ignored this observation. 'The man you see approaching us now,' she announced in an urgent whisper, 'is the owner of the place across the river - and I think that he may want to sell it.'

Following the one-horned goat came a huge man with a red bristly face, sitting astride a horse. He was doing the singing, presumably to amuse himself while he supervised the goat and its several companions, who included a couple of cows, a kid, a grubby sheep and a pair of dogs. He stopped, lurched forward in his saddle and surveyed us from beneath a filthy cotton beach-hat. With an oath he halted his entourage.

'Hola, buenas tardes. Would you be Pedro Romero, he who owns the farm across the river?' began Georgina.

The man grunted.

'I've heard you may want to sell it.'

'Maybe I do.'

'Then we want to come and see it.'


'Tomorrow morning.'

'I'll be there.'

'How do we get there?'

There followed a long-winded explanation of which I could only catch the odd reference to trees, brambles and stones. All rather unnecessary, I thought, as we were looking at the farm not half a mile away.

'This foreigner wants to buy the place?' He leered at me, assessing my worth.

'Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't.'

'Till tomorrow, then.'

'Till tomorrow.'

With which the little procession jangled its way back down the river. Romero had stopped singing and appeared lost in thought. I watched entranced as the lowering sun lit the little clouds of golden dust raised by the animals' feet.

'I know a thing or two about this business,' Georgina said, 'and that farm is definitely worth a look. It's called El Valero.'


Georgina considered me thoughtfully as we drank a morning coffee together before setting out for the valley.

'Listen, you're to keep quiet unless I prompt you. Leave the talking to me.'

'Alright. But hang on. Have we actually established that I want to buy El Valero? I was under the impression, if you'll forgive me, that I wanted La Herradura.'

Georgina looked me squarely in the eye. 'I've given the matter some thought, and I've decided that El Valero and you are well suited. You'll see when we get there.'

We drove to the valley in warm January sunshine. The farmers were working their fields of vegetables, the dogs and cats had returned to their allotted places in the road. It looked familiar this time. As we passed La Herradura, I looked down at it wistfully, and then with some misgivings at the place across the river.

After a while the road gave out completely, and we took our shoes off and waded through the river, which was knee-deep and fast-running in places, not to say cold. 'This is a hell of a way to get to a place,' I shouted, 'if you'll excuse my saying so.'

We climbed up a bank by eucalyptus trees and across a field, and from there followed a narrow path through terraces shot with flowers and shaded by oranges, lemons and olives. Clear runnels of water flowed here and there, tumbling down stony falls and spreading to water terraces of fruit trees and vegetables. The path stepped across a stream and curled up through a grove of blossoming almonds. Georgina turned and smiled at me.

'What do you think?'

'You know what I think - I've never seen anything like it!'

'Here's the house.'

'House?! It looks like a whole village. I can't buy a village.'

A couple of houses with some stables and goat-pens, chicken-runs and store-rooms, were spread at different levels on a great steep rock. Beneath this complex a hose dribbled feebly into a rusty oil-drum by a pomegranate tree.

Pedro Romero stood beside what was either a house or a stable, rubbing his hands and grinning.

'Ha! You've come. Sit down and drink wine, eat meat!'

We sat on low chairs with our knees up by our ears, and enjoyed the spectacle of two dogs copulating enthusiastically in the centre of the circle made by the seats. I didn't know whether it would be appropriate to offer some ribald comment upon this activity, or to pretend that it was not happening. Georgina glowered at me and I kept quiet as agreed.

A wizened wisp of a woman appeared, Romero's wife, Maria, and at an imperious gesture from the man of the house dispensed brown wine from a plastic Coca-Cola bottle and thumped a fatty lump of ham down on the box that served for a table. The sun shone down, flies buzzed. We drank the wine and ate the ham and considered the amorous activities of the dogs in an increasingly vinous stupor.

Georgina and Romero talked animatedly about neighbours and boundaries and water and rates and rights while I rocked back and forth on my chair and grinned vacuously. The dogs were quiet now as a result of being stuck together, looking bashfully in opposite directions, wishing perhaps that they'd never started the whole wretched business. The wine and the ham came and went, and I nodded off, then opened a heavy-lidded eye as Georgina poked me in the ribs.

'Slap this into his hand as if you mean it.'

She passed me a fat wad of peseta notes of large denomination.

'You're now the happy owner of El Valero and that's the señal - the deposit.'

It really was no use arguing with Georgina so I did as she said and bought the place. There was a deal of backslapping, handshaking and grinning all round.

'It was a gift at that price,' lamented Romero and his wife. 'We're ruined, really we've given our home away . . . you've bought a paradise for pennies, but what could we do?'

I almost began to offer them more money but Georgina shot me a silencing look, and so, for a little under five million pesetas (£25,000, more or less), I had bought a farm that I would have hardly dared look at over the fence before. In a matter of minutes I was transformed from an itinerant sheep-shearer and tenant of a tied cottage beneath an airport landing path in Sussex, into the owner of a mountain farm in Andaluc�a. This would take some getting used to.


Barely able to contain my excitement I drove to the nearest bar to phone Ana, my wife, in England - and there pulled up short. How exactly was I going to explain to her what I had just done? I shuffled the coins about on the table and looked for inspiration at the dregs in my wineglass. Strictly speaking, my brief had been to check out certain places in AndalucÃ?a and look at the possibility of buying a house and plot of land where together we could carve out a future. I couldn't help but feel that I had somewhat overstepped the mark. There comes a tide in the affairs of men, of course . . . but would Ana see it in quite that light?

She didn't. But then, in her position, neither probably would I. However, fortunately for us both, Ana has never been one for recriminations, and she soon shifted into that cautious line of enquiry that doctors employ after arriving at the scene of an accident.

'How far is it from the nearest road?' was her first question. It was a relief to be dealing with the practicalities.

'Oh, it's just about the distance from the cottage to the piggery.' I tried to imagine Ana looking across the Sussex farmyard. 'And that's not far, is it? I mean it's not very far to the piggery . . . No, there's no running water . . . wait, I tell a lie - there's a babbling hosepipe tied to an oil-drum about twenty metres below the house.'

I talked at length of the scarlet geranium petals floating on the water of the drum, of the gentle beasts stooping to drink, and of the bright flowers that carpeted the ground around this lovely pool. But Ana was not to be side-tracked.
Chris Stewart|Author Q&A

About Chris Stewart

Chris Stewart - Driving Over Lemons

Photo © Andrew Crowley/Camera Press

Chris Stewart shot to fame with Driving Over Lemons in 1999.  Funny, insightful and real, the book told the story of how he bought a peasant farm on the wrong side of the river, with its previous owner still a resident.  It became an international bestseller, along with its sequels – A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society.
In an earlier life, Chris was the original drummer in Genesis (he played on the first album), then joined a circus, learned how to shear sheep, went to China to write the Rough Guide, gained a pilot’s license in Los Angeles, and completed a course in French cooking.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Chris Stewart, author of DRIVING OVER LEMONS

Q: Let's first get some background -- how did you first get started in music?

A: Music, well, it was a long time ago. I'd have been about 13 when I saw Summer Holiday and the Young Ones, starring Cliff Richard. (For the benefit of your people, Cliff Richard is a sort of sanitized British version of Elvis Presley -- looser fitting trousers and rather more modest movements of the hips.) I wanted to be Cliff Richard, a ridiculous ambition engendered by his apparently phenomenal success with women, as portrayed on the screen at any rate. I saw this odd trans-substantiation as being the key to finding a mate, a quest which from the age of 12 started to occupy my every waking moment. The first step was to buy an old Spanish guitar.
I was quite devoid of musical talent, couldn't even tune the thing, but in the knowledge that a minimal mastery of this sonorous wooden box would secure me all the sex and love I could cope with, I persevered. I practiced till the blisters beneath the blisters on my fingertips were blue. In time, I achieved a certain pathetic proficiency; I mastered a Bourrée by Bach, a couple of simple pop songs, and found myself a mate.
I then turned my attention to the drums, as a way of mitigating the tedium and downright silliness of military parades with the compulsory school army cadet force. If you were a member of the "band and drums" you could at least exercise yourself a little better, clattering out your paradiddles, flams and ratamacues, than the others who had to stump about in their gleaming boots to the accompaniment of our music.
Some friends were putting together a house band at school, a thing that could bang out songs by Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and Otis Reading and others in a nice sort of a public school way. I was invited to play the drums. We played a gig or two, made a record or two, and became Genesis, of whom you may have heard. My involvement was pretty minimal, though the publicity folks dredged the whole thing up again after thirty years in order to get interest rolling in my book. They told me that the only thing that set me apart from other men was the fact that I had played with Genesis. I resented that a little bit, but it certainly worked.
Anyway, the other lads left school to pursue what some reckoned might be a lucrative career in the music industry, while I stayed on to finish my A-levels, which I subsequently flunked -- so what was the question?--yes, musician--well, I never really was one. I played music for the wrong reasons. Soon after leaving school, I dropped the drums and took up guitar a little more earnestly, and that has stayed with me to this day.

Q: Have you always had the urge to travel? When did you start writing Rough Guides?

A: I don't think anyone would ever dare answer part one of that question with a no. You'd lose the beauty contest fair and square. But working for the Rough Guides in 1984 at 33 years old was when I realized what was meant by travelling. The Rough Guide to China was a very significant event in my life. I recap:
Having lost a lot of money sheep-farming, I decided to throw in the towel and learn Chinese. I was tolerably good at languages and I though I might find an easier living as a sinologue than as a shepherd.
I met Mark Ellingham and Natanya Jansz at a party in London. I told them of my Chinese aspirations and they told me it was a shame they hadn't met me earlier as they had just sent three people to China to do the Rough Guide. I was understandably despondent, but then a week later the phone rang.
"Hallo Chris, are you busy these days?"

"No, I'm kicking my heels. Why, what?"

"How'd you like to go to China?"

So, I went to China with an exiguous expense account, a list of places to be visited and described and a very rudimentary command of Mandarin. I loved China, the beauty and the vastness of it, and the simplicity and generosity of the people I met. But I suppose I also loved it because it awakened me to the world, to the hopelessness of poverty, the hideous inequalities in the distribution of wealth and resources, and also to the strength of people against injustice and adversity. I knew all about this from books and newspapers of course, but I had never walked amongst it nor written a guide to its roads, rivers and railways.
The lessons I learned from traveling in China, and subsequently in Turkey, Palestine, Morocco and elsewhere, have stayed with me, though since I arrived in the Alpujarra I seem to have lost my urge to travel except in the immediate area.

Q: How did you end up settling in Andalucia?

A: In 1973, I worked on the vendange, picking grapes for the cognac producers in France. There I met an American woman who extolled the fairytale virtues of Seville as a place to study guitar. Her descriptions awakened a memory of a rather odd folk-song that went "When I was a young man, I studied guitar in Seville." So, when the grapes were all picked I hitched on down through France and Spain to Seville. I immediately lost my silly heart to everything; the architecture, the music, dances and songs, the poetry, the lovely Sevillana girls, the language and the river and the orange blossoms and all the voluptuous and illusory romance of southern Spain. I was utterly seduced and for years I came back to Seville, dreaming that one day I might return to live.
Then, fifteen years later and married to Ana, we found ourselves one day lamenting the dullness of our lot.
"If only we lived in Spain!" we each said to the other. So we came to Spain one April to see if we really did want to live in it -- and we did, and after eleven years, we still don't regret it, not one bit.

Q: What was the state of El Valero when you first saw it?

A: Unkempt but beautiful. The roofs kept the rain off more or less on the odd occasion when it rained, and the doors and windows kept the worst of the winter winds out. Pedro and Maria (El Valero's owners) certainly hadn't busied about putting fresh flowers in all the rooms, nor roasting coffee nor baking bread -- such shifts were unknown to them. We sat during the sale negotiations on chairs in the dust of the track outside the house. Groveling around us were Pedro's mangy curs, feline and canine, and the dust was dotted with rusty tins, old shoes, plastic bags, broken bottles. But, wherever Maria had found an old tin or box or pot, she had planted flowers, geraniums, roses, anything she could get hold of. She had swept the dust too. Maria's touching attempt to adorn their rough home with touches of simple beauty shone in stark contrast to Pedro's careless brutishness. On a warm sunny day in January though, it's not hard to fall in love with an Alpujarran cortijo.

Q: Did you ever doubt the wisdom of buying a farm with no access, no running water, no electricity? Did your wife, Ana, believe in El Valero as strongly as you did, or did it take some convincing?

A: No, I was carried along on a wave of romantic enthusiasm. If I had stopped to let common sense lend a hand, the whole scheme would have foundered before it was launched. Similarly if I'd let Ana in on the details she might have advised caution and we could have missed out on one of the best pieces of luck that has ever befallen us. I knew I was right -- though at the time I didn't know in just how many ways I could have been wrong -- and indeed I was right. Ana never dampened my enthusiasm in word or deed, and even if she wasn't altogether convinced at first, it didn't take her long to learn to love the place as much as I did.
On our wedding day, a distant uncle had drawn Ana aside and whispered in her ear.
"If you marry that man," which seemed highly likely as it was our wedding day, "you will never be bored."
Ana told me that shortly after we moved to El Valero, and I was really rather moved by it. Perhaps Ana had been thinking of those words when she followed me uncomplainingly to Andalucia.

Q: You suddenly became a farmer, and had to take care of pigs and goats, not to mention the various crops (olives, lemons, etc.). Was it a tough transition, or did you take to farming right away?

A: Ana and I had farmed in England for many years before we came here. We knew about sheep and farming in Britain. Nevertheless, there was, and still is, an awful lot to learn. I have many mistakes, but I think that little by little we are making some progress.

Q: You learned many new traditions and customs when you moved to las Alpujarras. For instance, Matanzas -- what was that like?

A: A pig-killing is certainly gruesome and the orgy of meat eating that follows it makes you good and bilious. It's not an occasion I would choose to attend, but it is an obligation to help your neighbor out -- the thing needs a lot of labor to manage the muscular and heavy pig and then to see to its spectacular metamorphosis into myriad sausages. Of course, our first matanzas made us feel very much a part of life here and we did enjoy that aspect.
There are now much fewer matanzas; people seem to be forgetting the tradition. Bernardo still keeps pigs. Miguel and Mercedes up the river in the Puerto now buy a dead pig in a plastic bag from the freezer shop, but they still retain the old customs in that they invite over the whole village for a glass or two of costa, and everybody takes home a piece of choice meat as if they had been all day helping dispatch the pig. It's a good way of bowing graciously out of the tradition.

Q: How did you get involved in sheep shearing? You brought technology -- in the form of a shearing machine -- to las Alpujarras. How did the farmers and sheep owners react?

A: I learned to shear sheep at 21 in the south of England. I was dazzled by the skill of the shearers who came to shear on the farm where I was working. From the moment I saw them I had to become a sheep shearer. So I did, and within a few years I had my own gang in the south of England. I loved the job; it was boyish fun and it earned me good money in a short season, which enabled me to live a rather unconventional lifestyle.
The sheep shearing has been a big help in making us feel a part of the community in which we live. Local people found it easy to understand what we did for a living, farming and shearing, and thus we gained an acceptance that some others don't achieve so well. I still love sheep-shearing -- on a good day.
Shepherds were suspicious of the mechanical machine at first, but now, ten years later, there's not a shepherd here who shears by hand. That may not be entirely a good thing -- but it's a true thing.

Q: You did all the building yourself (with some help from friends), and did a complete renovation of El Valero. Were you already a pretty handy guy, or did you learn as you went along?

A: No. I hated anything to do with handymanism. I had to learn to do things for myself though because it was difficult to find anyone to come all the way out here to work. So, I became a builder, carpenter, electrician, plumber, decorator -- the lot, achieving at best only a very modest ability. My heart's not really in it. I have to say that the building of one's own house is a very great pleasure though. I've come to consider -- foolishly perhaps -- the thought of living in a house built by somebody else as faintly distasteful, like wearing other people's underclothes.

Q: Do you worry that Andalucia will become a tourist haven like Provence?

A: No, I know what you're driving at though. DRIVING OVER LEMONS may not have the broad appeal of Peter Mayle -- it has not sold like the Provence books, and I don't think it will; it may be a little too raunchy and earthy for the common taste, in a similar way to the fact that Andalucia is a little raunchier than Provence.
DRIVING OVER LEMONS has sold well though -- in six months we've sold 200,000 in the UK. So far, the fanatical public response has been limited to a very agreeable family from Córdoba who walked all the way up the river one summer evening to get their book signed, and an extremely pretty Swiss woman who bought me a beer in a bar in return for signing her three books. I can learn to live with this sort of pressure.
On the other hand, I have heard that people have been seen in Orgiva clutching the book. This is wonderful. If the book succeeds in giving a shot in the arm to the rural tourism in an otherwise depressed area, then that's just great!

Q: What's the current big project at El Valero?

A: As I write this, the sky looks nasty over to the west. I suspect we're about to lose the bridge again -- so, more bridge building. But, apart from that there are endless projects -- planting more olives and oranges, rebuilding the stone walls of the terraces everywhere, re-cutting water channels, re-foresting the hillside, just generally trying to revive the place and see if it can't make us a living instead of being a bottomless pit in which to throw money. We're also registering with the appropriate authority as an organic farm. There's also modifying the house a bit to see if we can't enjoy at least a modicum of comfort. We keep busy.

Q: What's next for Chris Stewart?

A: Well, it has been discreetly suggested that I might have a crack at writing another book. I sort of like the idea, I do enjoy writing. The whole thing has been pretty heady so far and it would be fun to see if I can pull the same stunt twice. So, who knows what the future has in store?



  "Take half a cup of Bill Bryson, mix with three tablespoons of Peter Mayle, then add just a pinch of Monty Python, and what you get is Driving Over Lemons."- Chicago Tribune 

“A wonderful antidote to…modern electronic life. I love this book.”–Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence

"This funny book is required reading for anyone who has ever dreamed of taking up the pastoral life in a foreign country."- Travel & Leisure

"The ability to write hilarious travelogues... may well be a national characteristic [of the English].  It's certainly possessed by Chris Stewart."- The New York Times Book Review

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