petite anglaise

September 3, 2006


Filed under: city of light, single life — petiteanglaiseparis @ 2:42 pm

“Et, dites-moi, ma fille, pourquoi vous avez quitté votre mari, hein?” my neighbour enquires, in her abrasive, rather masculine voice.

Head: patchy fog. Limbs: rather stiff. Conversation: undesirable.

I danced until 4am last night in the scarlet womb of the Batofar. At first I thought the drink was playing evil tricks on my sense of balance, but it soon became apparent that the boat really was listing on the starboard side. I chose to believe that an uneven distribution of revellers across the dancefloor was responsible, because even if the boat had been about to capsize, there could be absolutely no question of leaving half way through “Bizarre Love Triangle”.

I finally manage to collect my wits sufficiently to venture out of my apartment twelve hours later. My aim is simply to take out the rubbish, have a peep inside my letterbox and then scuttle back upstairs to bed. Clutching a wad of junk mail and bank statements I begin my ascent. Halfway up the stairs I am waylaid by my new neighbour.

I don’t even know her name, but I am already perfectly au fait with her family situation. A son, living in Israel with his two wives (!) and four children. She was born and raised in Tunisia. There are two grown up children living in Paris, one of whom is a taxi driver. Her husband passed away sixteen years ago. She wears a sleeveless patterned overall over her clothes at all times, which I think Vitriolica would refer to as a bata; a headscarf is knotted around her wispy grey hair.

One thing is abundantly clear: the lady does not do small talk.

In the space of two minutes, she has already quizzed me about what I do for a living (ahem, complicated…) and enquired as to why my daughter isn’t with me. When I explain that Tadpole is at her daddy’s house today, that leads her to the million dollar question: “what on earth had possessed me to leave my husband?”

Executing my very best gallic shrug, I mumble something incomprehensible about how these things happen, which seems to satisfy her, for now. I choose not to correct her erroneous assumption that Mr Frog and I had been married. Now is not the time. It’s not that the subject of our separation is a sensitive one, really, but I suspect that to someone of her generation, my reasons would seem pithy. We didn’t fight tooth and nail. He never mistreated me in any way. We still get on rather well; in fact he’s one of my very best friends. The flame just sputtered out, over time, and we find it healthier to live apart. Even to myself, I now gloss over the leaving him for someone else part, which somehow seems irrelevant.

My neighbour decides to impart some friendly advice, woman to woman. Ever since she first saw me moving in, she has had a soft spot for me, apparently.

“Il faut pas rester seule, ma fille,” she says, putting a wrinkled hand on my arm and looking earnestly into my bleary eyes. “Pas pendant trop longtemps. C’est pas bien.”

I force my lips into a smile, wondering how to extricate myself from the conversation without causing offence. The footfalls of another neighbour in the stairwell give me hope. It is a thirtysomething male, bound for Franprix with a tartan shopping cart. The briefest flicker of irritation passes across his face when he sees my neighbour lying in wait, but, to his credit, he fields her questions about his family and his summer holidays with admirable patience.

I seize my chance and mutter an excuse, darting back into my apartment.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s lovely to have neighbours who actually want to have a chat from time to time. It’s usually the elderly who do – younger Parisians rarely take the time to get to know the people who surround them, even if the paper thin walls which divide our apartments mean that we are intimate in many other ways.

But next time I have an errand to run, I shall be checking to see that the coast is clear before I put a foot outside my door. Because there is one more thing you should know about my neighbour: her memory is failing.

We have had this very same conversation three times in the last week. I’m not quite ready for round four, just yet.


  1. Your beautifully-written blog is creeping me out in that we seem to haunt the very same places around this city. Batofar, Rock-en-Seine, one of two Zephyrs. Thanks as always for the great stories!

    Comment by Meg — September 3, 2006 @ 3:11 pm

  2. So, well, the ‘inquisitive neighbour’ species can be found everywhere then. It’s just that they can develop their inquisitive / advisory natures sooner rather than later in some places…

    Comment by Loxias — September 3, 2006 @ 3:18 pm

  3. >>C’est pas bien

    I had to really think deep, and back to my school days to try and comprehend some of the french. this is the only bit i understood though! (translates to: it is very* good? very=tres? ) ok..i’ll just give up!

    Comment by E.A.L — September 3, 2006 @ 3:28 pm

  4. What did she say to you? I’m not french speaking. ; )

    Maybe you can form an alliance with your other neighbours & alert all when she is about. Everyone can take turns chatting with her while the others make a fast getaway!

    Great post!
    The Tart
    ; )

    Comment by Cheap Tart — September 3, 2006 @ 4:27 pm

  5. I have worked with people with Altzheimers disease and it is a very sad affliction. It sounds as if this lady is harmless enough and just taking a motherly interest in you, Petite but I can understand why you would try and avoid her in the future, it can be infuriating to have to listen to the same thing repeatedly.

    Comment by Susannah — September 3, 2006 @ 4:29 pm

  6. Basically she said, “don’t stay on your own/single, my dear. Not for too long. It’s not good…”

    Which is not insulting or anything. But what can you say to that? It’s kind of out of my hands whether I meet anyone special enough to give up my current happy freedom for.

    Comment by petite — September 3, 2006 @ 4:34 pm

  7. Lovely. Totally Paris. The experience is in the detail, or rather, the sum of specific detail. beautifully done, P.

    Comment by fjl — September 3, 2006 @ 4:35 pm

  8. @EAL : Please do not complain. Babelfish does give “And, say to me, my daughter, why you left your husband, hein?” as a translation for the first sentence of this post.

    On the other hand, for the native French speaker unsure of the meaning of “to gloss over”, the sentence “Même à me, j’annotent maintenant l’excédent lui laisser pour quelqu’un d’autre la partie” (spurted by Babelfish when fed with “Even to myself, I now gloss over the leaving him for someone else part”) doesn’t really clarify the issue.

    Comment by Yogi — September 3, 2006 @ 5:09 pm

  9. What’s happening about a new job, and your appeal over the old one?

    Comment by David — September 3, 2006 @ 5:33 pm

  10. aww, she sounds very motherly, and caring. cant be a bad thing, though perhaps i would try and limit my conversations with her to once a week to try and avoid the repetition!

    Comment by E.A.L — September 3, 2006 @ 5:41 pm

  11. Is she the micro-wave-alarm-clock neighbour? If so you’ve got something to turn the “husband conversation” to your benefit.Microwaves’s bell is a very popular topic in stairwells.
    Her: Good morning, why did you LEAVE YOUR HUSBAND???
    You: Hello, because he could not REPAIR THE MICROWAVE’S BELL!!!
    By chance, her deep unconscious will understand: laisse-la tranquille! Ready for round 4.

    Comment by 4 roses — September 3, 2006 @ 5:41 pm

  12. Two wives?!? Frick! that must be an awkward living situation. Unless, of course, thats perfectly normal in Israel. In which case…its still weird. (No offence to any readers who may be…multi-married, I’m just rather closed minded.) I dont suppose your “toy” turned up? If not I do hope its not in the travel bag.

    Comment by Whisper — September 3, 2006 @ 7:34 pm

  13. lolololol

    Comment by Karen — September 3, 2006 @ 8:59 pm

  14. Well, she is a perfect example of what happens when you are alone for too long. You take a little too much interest in everyone elses life. (I type as I eagerly anticipate the next installment of your Blog)

    Hang in there, make a game of it, if she never remembers the answes anyway…I think I would come up with some grand stories.

    “Why am I single? Oh it was a terrible accident involving a microwave, two steak dinners, and a boat…”

    Comment by SaltyCracker0 — September 3, 2006 @ 9:19 pm

  15. I sometimes have to re-route my breakfast-time descent to another staircase just to avoid the chatterboxes. Why can’t some people understand you might want to be left alone when you make your first appearance? Even if it is past midday…
    I could never live with a truly morning person.

    Comment by Andrew — September 3, 2006 @ 9:47 pm

  16. Phoning my Grandma takes a fair bit of psyching myself up for… Why? Because the last few times I’ve spoken to her she’s started saying things like “met any nice young men lately?” and “you’ll find someone soon, love”. Great. Of course I hope she’s right, but it’s not something I particularly enjoy being reminded of!

    Comment by flechesbleues — September 3, 2006 @ 9:49 pm

  17. Track ? “Watcha want, Lady?” – DJ BC & the beastles

    fear the moment when lady neighbour is hidden in a corner, waiting for mother and daughter to cross the way, and “Ooooh, what a lovely daughter you have here, what’s her name again?”…. on a daily basis

    Comment by Aymardo — September 3, 2006 @ 10:45 pm

  18. Bravo, your blog is so witty, funny and very nicely written. En bref, une petite merveille. I like the way you blend the french and the english in your narrative.

    Comment by Maël — September 3, 2006 @ 10:53 pm

  19. Does anyone else find themselves making up more and more elaborate answers (some more truthful than others) when forced to have the same conversation multiple times?

    Or is it just me who’s tempted to suggest that you tell your dear old lady that you mudered Mr Frog in a fit of passion?

    Comment by Une Fille — September 4, 2006 @ 12:56 am

  20. BATA!!!!!

    sorry. couldn’t help myself.

    I promise I’ll contribute to the conversation next time.


    Comment by her what used to be vitriolica — September 4, 2006 @ 1:20 am

  21. I really like your blog. I’ve been reading it since I read about you on CNN. It’s amazing to me the amount of French that I remember. Reading your blog is good practice for me! Merci!

    And your neighbor seems pretty nice. You never know when she could end up being a God send to you.

    Comment by Anali — September 4, 2006 @ 1:31 am

  22. You are an easy person to fall in love with Ma Petite!
    As a wrinkly,or so my mirror insists, I read your blogs with much affection & great interest.You are now reccomended to all my friends.I have a daughter of about your age with some of your problems.
    Never despair!Your writing shows your great character.
    persevere.Bon chance

    Comment by Geoff — September 4, 2006 @ 1:36 am

  23. The good news is that if you end up having to be curt with her in a rush one day, she won’t likely remember that either, so, no worries. It sounds like you had a great time out, though. It must have been worth it. Also, I doubt she’d be likely to judge your marital status, or lack thereof, given that her son has two wives! Yikes! Another fine post, dear.

    Comment by Sophmom — September 4, 2006 @ 3:17 am

  24. Reminds me of when I visit my grandmother or speak to her on the phone and she tells me the same thing or asks me the same question five times… in one conversation. Then calls me on the phone the next day to tell me the same story all over again. She loves to milk a story and always has, but her fading memory (hey, she’s 94) means that we all get to enjoy her stories over and over and over again. Ah, well, guess we’ll all get old some day.

    Comment by The Bold Soul — September 4, 2006 @ 4:31 am

  25. Petite, think I know what you mean. In my case the effort to explain to my grand-parents the complexity of my personal life got so taxing for both parties, we just focus on the weather now. Their point seems to be why complicate things needlessly, why not stick to one relationship like they did. My point seems to be that with my life overall being pretty good why can’t I have a strong relationship, rather than a make-do one. We appear selfish and fickle to them, they harsh and self-denying to us. Not sure if this makes sense.

    Comment by denke — September 4, 2006 @ 5:05 am

  26. I love salty crackers idea… make a game of it.. have a new answer to the same question. It will give you something to smile about.

    We enjoy your day to day creativity… I’m sure she will too!

    Comment by twinsmama — September 4, 2006 @ 5:48 am

  27. We British are so reserved that we just wouldn’t broach asking questions concerning the personal life of a total stranger. It’s not the done thing.

    Since living in France I’ve found the French do not have a reserve – it just doesn’t exist in their mentality. They’ll ask you what they want, even if you find that embarrassing, brash or just plain rude.

    The further south you go, the more direct people are. To the extent that when we go down to the Hérault in the south of France you can find yourself having quite meaningful conversations with total strangers in the middle of the street – always instigated by the locals and especially if they are over 50.

    Comment by John N — September 4, 2006 @ 9:25 am

  28. I always check for neighbours before venturing out and I always feel guilty…

    Comment by lilacstripe — September 4, 2006 @ 10:42 am

  29. I agree with Une Fille that you could use these recurring conversations to entertain this neighbour and yourself with complex and incredible scenarios to explain our current situation. She won’t remember them, but will be shocked and tittilated by them while she does.
    On a more sombre note, we in Australia are mourning the freak accidental death of our mad crocodile hunter and conservationist, Steve Irwin, who was killed by a stingray which whipped his heart with it’s stinger as he swam over the top of it while filming a new documentary.

    Comment by Gil — September 4, 2006 @ 11:57 am

  30. Also happens in the North of England. Usually it’s the neighbour who doesn’t believe in wearing a shirt, telling us how useless our tomato plants are (true, but I won’t admit it) or how we should get rid of our front garden and pave it over and put up galvanised railings, because then it will look LOVELY just like their front garden!

    Thankfully none of them have got onto “so, why don’t you have kids?” yet.

    Comment by katie — September 4, 2006 @ 11:59 am

  31. Coincidentally, I am also reading Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’. It’s not an easy read. I’ll reserve judgement on it until I finish.

    Comment by Gil — September 4, 2006 @ 12:00 pm

  32. I didn’t realise that neighbours could speak……

    Comment by Tom Amos — September 4, 2006 @ 12:06 pm

  33. Lovely post and lovely picture.
    It is not just the old. I once went to a dinner party where a very drunken fellow guest asked me about my occupation three times. By the end of the night, I was working as a deep sea diver, having abandoned my rubber plantation in Malaysia (he said wistfully).

    Comment by laurence — September 4, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

  34. Katie…

    We get the “Why aren’t you married yet?” :)

    John N

    Comment by John N — September 4, 2006 @ 2:10 pm

  35. Tom…

    Ours don’t… generally… the one on the right says “Bonjour” very rarely and usually the only conversation comes when he wants to know if we are going to trim the height of our hedge, or when we cut a tree down and the very tip of it touched a dividing hedge, or more recently, safeguarding an investment.

    A couple of months ago he sold the rear of his garden for construction. Then was dismayed when we objected to the “new neighbours” demand that we rip up 9 metres of our hedge so they could build a house.

    Needless to say – the law was on their side… it seems… (limite de propriété and all that – very complicated French law – and the fact the Maire said “yes” to them and “No” to us) and we ended up ripping up our hedge so a house could be plonked there at the “limite du terrain”.

    Our neighbour on the right is laughing all the way to the bank.

    Neighbours… dontcha just luv ’em?

    John N.

    Comment by John N — September 4, 2006 @ 2:19 pm

  36. The GLOBAL community mourns the death of croc-tastic Steve Irwin. What a bloke, good on ‘im!


    Comment by TCA2006 — September 4, 2006 @ 2:59 pm

  37. The worst is when your family does it. After all they mean well…right. Still, I end up avoiding any topics that might reference my personal life at all. If you needed their input, you’d ask!

    If it happens again Petite, I’d suggest using your English roots and pretending that you don’t understand a word that she is saying. Pardon? Je ne comprend pas! (I’m sure my french is lacking, but you get the idea).

    Comment by Sam — September 4, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

  38. I read On Beauty a few months back too, and I really enjoyed it! But I’ve realized more and more how very personal reading taste is, so I can understand why some may not find it as entertaining as I did… But I liked it even more than White Teeth! Definitely confirmed me as a Zadie Smith fan in any case.

    Anyhoo, a bit off-subject, sorry about that Petite! I’m often intrigued by your reading choices because I find you’re such a good writer, you’ve got to be reading some good books!

    Comment by Always Ace — September 4, 2006 @ 3:18 pm

  39. To Gil comment 39 – From London I can tell you that we are all mourning Steve Irwin’s death. What a shock! What a loss!

    oh.. and great post petite..:)

    Comment by Maria — September 4, 2006 @ 3:22 pm

  40. ooops, er..Gil comment 29 that is…

    Comment by Maria — September 4, 2006 @ 3:24 pm

  41. Never mind the female neighbour – you can forgive her if she’s older and her memory’s going.
    What we need to know is why a thirtysomething male has a tartan shopping cart.

    Comment by Hywel Mallett — September 4, 2006 @ 3:32 pm

  42. Everyone in Paris has a wheelie shopping bag. We don’t have cars, people like me don’t want to buy everything in huge quantities on the online supermarket sites (I want one apple, not 1 kilo of apples) and so, the bags on wheels are a fact of life. Tartan is a poor choice, I agree. Mine folds flat when not in use and is matt black.

    Did I just ruin my own image?

    Comment by petite — September 4, 2006 @ 4:00 pm

  43. Ah, over-friendly, nosy neighbours. She seems very good at it. I can usually get away with, “I have to make a quick phone call.” And I haven’t seen a shopping bags, especially a plaid one, in forever. Since my mom used to drag us with her to the grocery store and overload the thing as we pull it up the street – that along with the wired ones. dawn

    Comment by dawn — September 4, 2006 @ 4:34 pm

  44. Hi Sam…

    Families… my MIL lives in front of us and is always ready with the advice both useful and pain-in-the-arse type… :)

    John N.

    Comment by John N — September 4, 2006 @ 5:00 pm

  45. “Everyone in Paris has a wheelie shopping bag.”

    They’re big in NYC too! I grew up with them, my mom sending me to the store for stuff.

    Comment by Dave of the Lake — September 4, 2006 @ 5:09 pm

  46. Mais elle a raison non? Pas pour longtemps comme meme. (Can’t do the accents) It like that every where here. Something I noticed, particularly in the south, the lonely old people, very very draining and sometimes disturbing, and sometimes there is one whom you can knock the crack out of. Maybe it’s not memory failing though, maybe she has no one else to talk to about anything. I can just encourage your patience as much as possible.

    Comment by warrior — September 4, 2006 @ 5:21 pm

  47. The last conversation I had with a neighbour in France was when I moved into a new flat 5 years ago. The little old lady next door frowned and told me to use the key – you don’t need to slam the door shut!

    As I have behaved she hasn’t had to speak to me again.

    Comment by t roger — September 4, 2006 @ 5:41 pm

  48. I am afraid you did!

    Comment by Kirsty — September 4, 2006 @ 6:22 pm

  49. “Did I just ruin my own image?”

    Depends… Avoid sleeveless patterned overall and headscarf, and you might be safe

    Comment by Aymardo — September 4, 2006 @ 6:27 pm

  50. Hardly anyone seems to have mentioned your fabulous spiral-staircase photo! Where is it?


    Comment by Tom — September 4, 2006 @ 7:25 pm

  51. Ah, the photo. Well, it’s the closest I could find to what mine looks like, on flickr, but I couldn’t credit the photographer as I kept getting user not found errors… Mine is a bit too dimly lit to get a decent photo.

    Comment by petite — September 4, 2006 @ 8:08 pm

  52. I love that term “happy freedom” that you’ve realized you have now. It’s a long, difficult road to being able to get that far after a breakup.

    As for your neighbor, good luck. It may be difficult prying yourself away without hurting her feelings. You could use the excuse that you’ve got something on the stove cooking, or that you are late for an appointment. It’s cool that you’re at least taking a few minutes to listen, even though it’s painful ;-)

    Comment by Becky — September 5, 2006 @ 3:59 am

  53. I was surprised by how kind my neighbours of a certain age were during the day and then how they would complain, even leaving anonymous notes that they would take me to the syndic, the day after a party…

    Comment by May — September 5, 2006 @ 8:16 am

  54. I know what you mean about not wanting to run into the neighbors. Sometimes I go downstairs to check the mailbox or whatever, not shaven or presentable and I cringe when a neighbor shows up. At least in this apartment I don’t have a concierge following all my comings and goings.

    As far as questions I don’t like there is always the question I get here from stangers, “Do you have any children?” Somehow, I don’t always feel like explaining my sexual prefernce to people I meet briefly in passing. If I had a dog that is what I would respond — “no, I have a dog”, leaving them perplexed about the tie. Unfortunately, I don’t.

    Comment by Lost in France — September 5, 2006 @ 9:36 am

  55. Hey there,
    finally got around to your blog. i like your writing style. keep on, you told me you were writing a book right? I did be so glad to read.
    see you soon.

    Comment by Suttu — September 5, 2006 @ 10:05 am

  56. You’re writing a book??????

    Comment by Kirsty — September 5, 2006 @ 10:34 am

  57. might be.

    Radio 4 thingy is here, by the way. I managed to miss myself and it took a while to find the link.

    Comment by petite — September 5, 2006 @ 10:56 am

  58. From my experience (in England) it is those whose lives are empty, dull, or unhappy that are most intrusive in their questioning. Such people live vicariously – having little or nothing in their own lives, they feed on the lives of others.

    I can only pass on the advice I have been given: give them five minutes of your time, make your excuses and leave.

    BTW, I have just heard you on BBC Radio 4 (09:30-09:45 BST, 5 September 06). I thought the reporter gave you a very sympathetic hearing. You came across to me as very level-headed, ‘grounded’, and genuine. I hope this publicity helps with securing a publishing deal for your undoubted literary talents. My good wishes to you and Tadpole.

    Comment by John M — September 5, 2006 @ 11:15 am

  59. just came across your blog. love it. i too am an ex-pat living in a new country with a small child and it’s nice to read the stories of other ex-pats.

    Comment by mel — September 5, 2006 @ 11:50 am

  60. “Everyone in Paris has a wheelie shopping bag.”

    Petite, this is a desperate sign of having gone native, but I suppose the fact that yours is black means that there is hope for you yet.

    It’s like French men carrying those nasty little attaché cases on the metro as they go to work, which are either empty or contain an unread copy of l’Equipe (or, even worse, one of the metro freebies).

    I resist.

    Comment by C — September 5, 2006 @ 12:51 pm

  61. Hi

    Just looked in for the first time after your stardom on Radio 4 this morning.

    Thank you for sharing a slice of your life in such an eloquent of stylish manner. I shall be returning…

    As to “La Vieille Dame” why don’t you write your salient family details on the back of a photo of you and yours and next time you see her give it to her as a little present – it might make some of it stick?

    Comment by Tim — September 5, 2006 @ 2:36 pm

  62. I assume you nosey neighbour is going to be a regular feature on your blog.

    Comment by Banana — September 5, 2006 @ 3:12 pm

  63. Hywel Mallet, you’re the only one who copped onto the “thirtysomething” male.
    we could be heading for a stair-hopping, breath-catching romance.
    Or he might be gay (choice of tartan, see Alexander McQueen)

    Comment by Flighty — September 5, 2006 @ 3:13 pm

  64. When I lived in Boston, I had a neighbor who was not only nosy, but delusional. He was a large fellow, about 6’3″ tall, very efféminé, lived right next door to us with his boyfriend, and was prone to violent tendencies. He was always very nice to me and the girl with whom I was living at the time. But the fact was, he was in the latter stages of HIV/AIDS and likely suffered AIDS related demensia.

    He would constantly stop us in the hallway and tell us how he was the Archangel Michael and his boyfriend was Gabriel. Just about every day, I had to hear about his visions, and what God said to him that day as he was sitting in his living room listening to his stereo and drinking vodka.

    The conversation was usually pleasant enough, but on occasion he would get very passionate about his stories and become quite agitated and animated. It could be frightening at times. We got really good at slipping into our apartment quietly so as to avoid him, but that was usually to no avail, as he would simply ring our buzzer and knock on our door. We used to answer, but soon realized the stupidity of such action. So we eventually stopped answering, opting to hunker in the living room, not daring to move a muscle, while debating in whispers about whether we should answer the door, or slip out the back door and go to a bar until the heat is off.

    We were prisoners in our own homes.

    Comment by Adam — September 5, 2006 @ 4:16 pm

  65. Malheureusement pour vous , vous venez de rencontrer la concierge de l’immeuble! Faire tres attention……. Gentille mais rapporteuse.
    Et biensur elle essayera de vous faire rencontrer toute sa famille!!!!!!!!!!! une vraie smala!

    Comment by diane — September 5, 2006 @ 4:43 pm

  66. “Bizarre Love Triangle” – as in the New Order Song? Any particular significance or merely the song that happened to be playing as the boat started to list?

    Comment by Nikki — September 5, 2006 @ 4:43 pm

  67. I have never been to Paris–except in both my heart and head. I love the way that you present it for me. You blog is luscious.

    The avoiding neighbors thing must then be a worldwide epidemic, oui?

    Comment by FSolomon — September 5, 2006 @ 4:49 pm

  68. No nosey neighbours to waylay me! Thank goodness! Though I suppose there is a charm ….. probably not a good idea to ask her to sit for the Tadpole though. She could seriously creep out a little kid! x, ellie

    Comment by ellie — September 5, 2006 @ 6:01 pm

  69. this story brings back memories of living in Paris! the French and the staircase photo too. Heather

    Comment by heather — September 5, 2006 @ 7:00 pm

  70. Hywel Mallet. Is that pronounced using the Welsh double LL? Saying your name like that makes me giggle…

    Comment by Welsh Cake — September 5, 2006 @ 7:40 pm

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