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Voices of the Via Egnatia

Hiking the Via Egnatia from Durres, Albania, to Thessaloniki, Greece, this project captures impressions, images, soundscapes and interviews along the historical route across the Balkan Peninsula.

Voices of the Via Egnatia: Project Description

Coping with a large and sudden influx of migrants can pose various challenges for receiving countries and local communities alike. Discriminatory attitudes are, perhaps as a result of the ‘sudden’ arrival of migrants, discernible in many European member states, as well as in Switzerland. Proof for such a sentiment is, for instance, the approval of the Ausschaffungsinitiative (deportation initiative).2 What is the perception of immigrants regarding the collective approval of this political initiative, and do migrants (still) feel welcome in Switzerland in particular, and in Western Europe in general? By extension, how do individuals in the Balkans perceive the migratory policies of Western Europe in general, and particularly in Switzerland? The following project seeks to answer these questions in two successive stages.

Central to the first stage of the project is the Balkan region itself. The goal of this initial phase is to introduce individuals in Switzerland to the rich cultural traditions, the people, and history of the Balkan region. It is for this reason that my partner and I have chosen to hike the Via Egnatia. The Via Egnatia, built sometime between 146 and 120 BCE, was initially known as the via militaris, as it served the purpose of connecting the Roman Empire with Byzantium. The Egnatia, however, turned into a via publicus, and thus served the purpose of trade, travel, and tourism. With the onset of the mid-fifth century and subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire, the Egnatia suffered invasions and fell into disrepair. In the 15th century, the rising Ottoman Empire later used, and relied heavily on this same artery to move its army, goods, and cultural traditions westwards. As a result, one is able to see markets, amphitheaters, charitable kitchens, hammams, mosques, and churches that variously date back to the Byzantine, Roman and/or the Ottoman Empire. As such, the Egnatia served as an artery that initially connected Rome with Byzantium and subsequently Istanbul with the West. Yet the route evolved into a road of much more importance. The Via Egnatia was a highway by which goods, ideas, and cultural practices travelled back and forth between the East and the West. The Egnatia is, in other words, a cultural heritage that preserved the common history of the Balkan region.

My partner and I will hike the Egnatia between July 19 and August 17, 2016. We start our trek in Durres, Albania, and make our way to Thessaloniki, Greece, to learn more about the everyday life of individuals along this route, and to understand how they perceive the Egnatia, the Balkans in general, and crucially, how they perceive the ‘West’ from afar. Do they have relatives who moved to Switzerland, or else the European Union? How do they feel about the local outmigration, and does it affect them personally?

Migrants who moved to, and made their home in Switzerland, are the focus in stage two of the project. What were the factors that lead to their decision to ‘up and move’ their entire life, to leave their family and their friends behind? What were their dreams and hopes before leaving for Western Europe, and did their family approve of their decision to leave? How do their family and friends view Western Europe, and Switzerland in particular from afar? One of the major objectives is thus to broach the question of migration from a human perspective.

Upon completing the project, we hand the visual and oral data3 to a Swiss theater, which turns the data into a play. Additional outputs will include articles in cultural magazines. The project is financed by the Landis and Gyr foundation in Switzerland.4


1 Image from Viaegnatiafoundation.eu

2 The Ausschaffungsinitiative (deportation initiative) calls for the expulsion of foreign nationals who reside in Switzerland legally, though have been convicted for one or more of the following offenses: offense against life and limb, abuse of the Swiss welfare system, drug trafficking, and burglary. The law refers to crimes committed by foreigners. For more detailed information on the initiative, pleaser refer to: https://www.admin.ch/ch/d/pore/vi/vis357t.html#

3 All of the participants have the choice to speak anonymously.

4For more information on the foundation, please visit: http://www.lg-stiftung.ch/page/de/home.

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13.08.2016 Thessaloniki, Greece

An elderly Greek man killed the engine to his dusty, two-wheeled drive Toyota pickup truck, a vehicle so ubiquitous around this part of Greece that it seemed odd whenever we saw a passenger car. The man slowly got out of the vehicle and approached us. He was a farmer, smelling of sweat and stale cirgarettes, wearing a hat with the logo of a Greek fertilizer firm. Using hand gestures, we realized he wanted to know what the hell two lost-looking tourists were doing crossing his land. The man’s son was not far away, manually picking green and red peppers. 
This was our last day on foot. We started the morning in the city of Giannitsa, paid homage to Alexander the Great’s birthplace in Pella, and were less than five kilometers from Chalkidona, a town with regular bus service to Thessaloniki.
From the farmer’s field, we could see a vast plain dominated by agriculture. That morning we skirted vineyards and cotton fields splattered with yellow and purple flowers. Following the Via Egnatia in Greece means getting an inside glimpse into the the world of large-scale fruit and crop cultivation. Noticeably different from Albanian and Macedonian rural landscapes, the Greek countryside showcases more capital with modern tractors and expensive irrigation systems.   
The farmer only spoke Greek. “Helvetia,” we said, explaining that we came from Switzerland. This caught his attention. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, indicating money. Then he pointed at himself and shook his head. We got the message.
What we have not commented about Greece nearly enough is the generosity of the Greek farmers. Similar to our Albanian experience, the Greek farmers and villagers didn’t let us pass through their small towns without some token gift. More often than not, we were on the receiving end of fruit, coffee or bottled mineral water. Most of the time the person treating us to the gift never even spoke to us. 
The old farmer pointed towards a nearby hillside. Ripe watermelons were everywhere. He made a cutting gesture. Another gift. He strode with us among the melons, picking out an enormous specimen, far too large to carry on a pack. Without hesitating, he cut the watermelon from the plant and then split the fruit in half. He handed over the watermelon and gave me his knife before walking away. Sandra and I sat down in the field and gorged ourselves on the watermelon under the midday sun. Juice ran down our chins. 
A couple hours later we arrived in Thesssaloniki. We strolled through the city, marveling at Aristotle’s Square, remnants of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Ottoman civilizations along with hundreds of other tourists. Yet the magic was gone. This was too easy. Where was the bare-chested Greek ready to toast to our good health? Where was the Greek hang gliding team ready to ferry us down a mountain so that we didn’t have to face the shepherd dogs? Where was the gentle old Greek restaurant owner telling us about his long ago crush on a German girl? Where were the Macedonian-speaking Greeks offering us Raki and sausages? These are the sorts of people we were lucky enough to to meet on the backroads between Durres and Thessaloniki. 
People everywhere we went asked us why we had decided to walk the Via Egnatia. Easy. We walked so that we could talk to these same people. Getting out there on foot literally opened doors. This trip required us to trust people, to ask for help along the way. We were never let down.

11-12.08.2016 Giannitsa, Greece

Our hike from Profitis Ilias was to be an easy one – 14 kilometers only. We packed up our camp, excited about our light day ahead, got some coffee in a local cafe, and left town.
It was a pleasant hike through endless orchards – peaches, plums, kiwi, grapes, figs, apples, pears, walnuts, almonds, and the occasional pepper. Admiring the vast variety of fruit and vegetables around us, Josh exclaimed at some point that “it’s like walking though a grocery store here!”. Indeed, fruit pickers and farmers were busy harvesting the ripe fruit all over, and we were gifted more fruit than we were able to carry. Having received plums, apples, and peaches the day before, we now got melons – three, to be correct. We got one watermelon, and two honey dews from a farmer who exclaimed “tourists!” before hurrying to his pick up truck, returning with the ripe, delicious fruit. Packs on our backs, and loaded with fruit, we made it to a restaurant on the river where we had to give most of the fruit away being unable to carry more weight in the ever rising heat – 37 degrees Celsius.
Leaving the lusciously cool Greek taverna, though unable to find a place to stay and camp in Aravissos after our short 14 kilometer walk, we decided to push on to Giannitsa. Propelled by the thought of having a shower that same evening, we walked on through more orchards, waving to farmers, most of whom were curious about the two foreigners who walked through the fields under the burning sun. One man working the irrigation canals through up is arms questioningly, pointing at the sun and our packs. At this point, all I could come up with was ‘ludi smo’ – we’re crazy. 
On through orchards, dilapidated buildings, and abandoned factories, we walked on a dyke where we were spotted by one of the farmers on the field. “What are you doing?”, he asked, as he made sure we knew the way. “We are walking the Via Egnatia”, we replied, and Josh pointed to our GPS signaling that we kind of knew where we were going. We exchanged a few more pleasantries and said our goodbyes. As we marched on, the guy came back out of the orchards and shouted into the distance “hey, where are you from?” “From Switzerland”, we shouted back into the distance. The man, after a short pause, yelled back “banks, banks! European Union finished! Help us, help us!” 
After this exchange, we walked on in silence for a while as both of us were unable to make sense of the gross financial incongruencies that seem to divide Europe.
In Axos – 27 kilometers into our supposedly 14 kilometer hike and 4 kilometers out of Giannitsa – we gave into the heat and bussed into the city.       

10.08.2016 Profitias Ilias, Greece

“Let’s drink twenty beers!” yelled our newest acquaintance, a 53-year-old bare-chested Greek man we had just met in Profitias Ilias, the end of our day’s hike from Edessa and a town without a hotel. Fun-loving and humorous, our tanned and fit Greek guide was ready to entertain. And that he did. Think of Anthony Bourdain’s local sidekicks, especially the raw and edgy pundits regaling the food traveler with homespun stories of gossip and intrigue. That was us with our pal.
 “Fresh souvlaki,” he said, declaring that he knew of a cheap restaurant in town where we could sip cold beers and devour grilled meat. He was right. Slightly rundown but homey, we sat outside at a table under an awning, old men with red eyes and slurred speech hovered over glasses of ouzo and beer. A broken fan above us refused to whir, so we simply dragged the table under the only working fan. Still shirtless, our guide seemed like he owned the place, joshing with all of the clients and explaining to the puzzled men what two tourists were doing in a town that is clearly off the beaten path.
Working odd jobs at times, our unemployed but happy-go-lucky guide lamented the Greek crisis, but said that he was getting by. He owned a house in a nearby village and didn’t have to pay rent. He grew vegetables in his garden. As long as you don’t take too much, fruit could be picked from the orchards, he advised. Last week he spent camping on the Aegean Sea coast, plucking mussels from the bountiful waters and boiling them over a beachside fire. 
Speaking to us in English, he also spoke a smidgen of German, having spent some time working in Germany. The problem, he said, was that working abroad means just working … no time left to live. Yet he expressed his desire to come and work in Switzerland, if only for a brief stint, asking us about whether it’s possible to work without speaking German fluently. His family has deep roots in the area. They were part of the population exchange. 
As night fell, far short from drinking twenty beers, we were still without a place to stay for the night. Again our guide came up with the solution. Stay in the local football field, he suggested. It is safe, he added, knowing that it was almost entirely enclosed. Plus, there is a tap for water, he said while walking with us to the field to show us where to camp. 
Set up for the night in our tent in the field, listening to a river, barking dogs and old men speaking Greek in a nearby coffee bar, we were almost asleep when the tent shuddered. More shaking. Small projectiles were pelting the tent. Kids were laughing outside and yelling. They had hurled apples and olives at our tent. We spoke to them in English, yelling at them to stop. “Sorry” they told us, adding “Good night.”  

09.08.2016 Edessa, Greece II

Edessa is a wonderful city, lined with large trees, rivers, and perched on a cliff overlooking the eastern plains below into the distance. Since we had combined two hiking days into one, we were now able to enjoy the chilled atmosphere in this stunningly beautiful city.
In the morning, we met a group of three extremely fit looking men in a downtown cafe and quickly got into an animated conversation about cycling and hiking. These men, both in, and above their 40s had just gone on a cycling tour of 300 kilometers – in one day. These guys were seriously fit.
We learned that a lot of people became active in the wake of the economic crisis.”People just no longer value the money as they value their time”, said one of the men. Having remembered what our flying hero said a couple of days back, we asked this man about people moving back to the villages because of the economic crisis, as opposed to abroad – a narrative he corroborated. “People have just come to value what is important, which is not money”, he said. 

08.08.2016 Edessa, Greece

We packed up our camp after the storms that had raged over our heads the night before, and started our short trek – nine kilometers only – to Edessa. Though the trek was short, we stopped in Agras to have some coffee and breakfast before reaching the city.
As we sat down, we tried to find a common language with the owner of the restaurant, a smiling, sympathetic elderly man who, as we soon learned, had lived in Germany for two years. Though we were able to carry on a a seamless conversation in German, the man kept apologizing for his broken German, which, to our ears, sounded everything but broken considering the man had lived near Stuttgart for only two years – 40 years ago. 
He told us he had moved to Germany after his compulsory military service. He shared a flat with a bunch of colleagues and worked in the Mercedes factory between 1968 and 1970. His recollections of his time spent in Germany conjured up mixed emotions as he spoke of his girlfriend he once had, the steady and safe work schedule, and tasteless vegetables. “I had a girlfriend, and it was very nice. We went to see movies, went for walks, and she invited me to eat with her parents. It was all very correct, she introduced me to her parents, and I asked her dad if I can date his daugher. Everything was correct”, he repeated. “There is work in Germany. Here, there is no work, no industry, no factories…”.
He used to work for the church when he came back, and now owns the restaurant we ate in. We had meanwhile gotten our delicious frittata which we ate with gusto, having eaten but plain peanut butter, plums, and mustard with bread the day before. “The food in Germany … potatoes and meat and coleslaw”, said the man, adding that even though he liked living in Germany very much, he could not get used to the food there.” The tomatoes taste like cardboard … you might as well eat the chair, or this table cloth. I think it would taste the same. Here, when you grill a steak, the whole village smells good! When you grill a steak in Germany, there is no smell. No smell, not good, not bad. Just no smell”. 
His daughter-in-law meanwhile brought out another cup of coffee to quench our bottomless desire for caffeine. “She is from Albania, she came here to find a job”, the man explained. His daughter-in-law made us think of a boy we met in Albania who too made his way to Greece to pick fruit during the summer months.
This boy had told us how difficult it was to do this job. “I made about 25 Euros a day, and I work all day, between eight and ten ours daily. I have to share a flat with a bunch of other guys, and I didn’t eat much so that I could save money … I got so skinny doing that”, the boy explained. “I think I will go back this summer”, he added.
We said our goodbyes, having thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast as well as our conversation with this pleasant man and arrived in Edessa at noon.       

07.08.2016 Agras, Greece

Overcast skies and cooler temperatures made for easier trekking. It was early morning. We were headed east from Arnissa towards a small village called Nisi, about 17 kilometers away, a landscape dominated by orchards and hillsides. As a rule, small villages like Nisi do not have hotels, meaning we were going to to have improvise. 
About an hour after leaving Arnissa, we stood at a crossroads in the middle of Nea Xanthogia, a tiny village amidst a sea of orchards, trying to make out the scratchy unintelligible words emitting from old speakers attached to the top of an old van with open side doors showcasing a load of watermelon for sale. A woman sat in a plastic chair nearby the roadway waiting in an open area littered with dozens of empty fruit crates, signaling that this was an apple dropoff station. 
We spent much of the day on shaded double-track dirt roads, barricaded by grids of apple trees, listening to invisible farmers pruning fruit trees with loud chainsaws. Without a GPS, we would have been lost in the sea of trees. 
By one we were closing in our destination. We had just topped a pass on tarmac, but our path diverged from the roadway. We slowly bushwacked down a rocky and overgrown path overlooking marshlands below, legs blotched with red and itching from passing through the tall grasses, seeds stuck to our socks.  

   

In Nisi we threw down our bags next to a table outside the only coffee bar in town. Stocky men of all ages and children sat at tables under large umbrellas advertising Greek beer. Missing were the women. The men, wearing smudged work clothes, sipped cold beer. Clearly, they had spent the morning in the fields and now with the heat and sun had retreated into the shade. We heard Greek and Macedonian. The owner brought us coffee, mineral water and Cokes. Speaking Serbian, Sandra inquired about a place to stay for the night. “Nothing … nothing,” the owner said flatly. The man was in a rush. It was nearing two o’clock, closing time for many shops in the Balkan Peninsula. Even grocery stores closed in the middle of day, only to open later at five o’clock. People adapt to the heat here with a completely different schedule. Getting up to leave, we tried to pay. Our bill was already settled. Amazingly, the Greek men had paid for our tab.
Having no choice, we pushed on. We decided to camp in a shelter by a remote church. These mountain sanctuaries make for perfect campsites. We lit two candles, accepted a kilo of plums from a passing farmer and ate granola bars smothered with peanut butter. Still hungry from going all day without food, we satisfied our hunger with mustard spread on bread.

06.08.2016 Arnissa, Greece

Don’t walk up there, our new friend from Meliti advised, pointing east towards a remote sloping grassland dotted with juniper and shrubs. There are too many wild dogs, he explained. Take the road, he suggested, and go through the villages to get to Kella, a village on the pass separating the plain of Florina and Lake Vejoritidis. We listened and chose the tarmac.
Walking east, a huge billowing smokestack and surface coal plant dominated the landscape. Steep hills dotted with flocks of sheep and shepherds gave life to the region. In the town of Lofoi we stopped for coffee. A man sitting idly watching television in an almost empty building directed us to the local coffee shop. Coffee is a way of life in the Balkans and northern Greece. Even in the average shop, you must say how you like your coffee. Saying coffee will garner looks of confusion. The good stuff, in our opinion, is not instant Nescafé but rather coffee brewed without a filter, the grinds dumped into the cup along with the liquid java. Often times called Turkish coffee, it seems everywhere we go people have their own name for this coffee of Herculean strength. Where I come from it is known as cowboy coffee. In Albania, it is simply called Turkish coffee, whereas in Macedonian we heard it called both Turkish and Macedonian coffee. The Greeks call it simply Greek coffee. But it is always the same.
Further up the hillside, we stopped for a peanut butter sandwich in Vevi. The best place to rest and relax in these villages are the church courtyards. Sandra posed for a photo next to a highway sign in the center of the village declaring that “Yugoslavia” was 40 km down the road, meaning the government is 25 years out of sync with the political geography, or else the politicians here have failed to make structural improvements in this part of Greece.
A few kilometers away from Kella we ran into canine problems. A young shepherd, almost a boy, with three trailing dogs, was moving a flock of sheep, goats and one donkey up the mountain alongside the roadway. We waited behind the flock for 30 minutes wondering if we could pass safely. Hearing a car, we stuck out our thumbs, jumped into a truck, and were delivered safely into Kella five minutes later.
Kella felt ancient, a world apart. Perched on a pass, it was surreal, remote and pastoral with roaming sheep, patrolling dogs and an aging population, some whom still lived in photogenic houses built of stone. To the north and south were peaks where we imagined Greek gods were looking down on us, thinking of ways to test our limits.
It was one o’clock. We couldn’t find a place to stay in town and decided to push on to Arnissa below. A thriving sheepdog population worried us, so we decided to try our luck hitchhiking. We waited along the edge of town for thirty minutes. Not a single car passed. It was hot. We gave up and waddled back into town where we found our Greek hero – Nick. High on adrenaline, our young Greek superhero had come from the heavens, literally. He was a paraglider and had landed nearby. He was waiting in town for his buddies to come pick him up in a cargo van owned by the reigning Greek hang gliding champion. “You can ride with us,” Nick said, “though it’s going to be uncomfortable.” Minutes later we jumped into the back of a windowless and seatless cargo van, eating ice cream and laughing at our fantastic luck.    

05.08.2019 Meliti, Greece

Having explored the beautiful city of Florina the day before, we taxied back to the Via Egnatia route in Niki from were we started our hike to Meliti. The trek led us out of town toward an abundance of fruit orchards and sunflower fields.
We arrived in the village of Mesochori where we took a break from the midday heat. Three men were enjoying their break in a local cafe-bar. We tried to struck up a conversation in German, English, and Spanish, and were somewhat surprised to learn that we could keep our communication up in Serbian, just as had been the case in Macedonia. “Macedonia and Serbia,” the men exclaimed, “are friends! They are like brothers in faith and language.” 
One of the man had lived in Germany. He had left Greece right after his compulsory military service, thinking he would go to Germany for a couple of months to earn some ‘start up’ money. Eventually he married, had kids, and ended up living in Germany for about thirty years. His kids did not come back to Greece with him. “I am here, they are in Germany, and there is hardly anybody left in this town. What can I say…”, he said somewhat distraught. 
The three elderly men explained that there was no way to make any money in town since there were few jobs except agricultural occupations. At the same time, they said, everything is too expensive. This was especially the case since the introduciton of the euro, they said. Instead of raising the prices gradually over time, ‘they’ made a one to one switch between the drachma and the euro in addition to raising the prices gradually, the men explained. “So we shop in Bitola, Macedonia, where everything is cheaper, until they have the euro too. Then, the same thing will happen there”.
In the evening, we arrived in Meliti and walked right into a boisterous discussion in a local restaurant. The crowd, all of them middle-aged men, sat around a table with heaps of half-eaten meals, bear bottles and rakija glasses. We tried out our luck again, and started a conversation in Serbian. Immediately, the men invited us to share their table at which the discussion about Communists and Fascists continued in Macedonian and Greek – loudly, and in playful earnesty. The men offered Josh a shot of Rakia. “Too strong,” said Josh. “What kind of man are you!” they shouted back. So they made Josh take a bite from a proffered sausage held out on a fork. Seeing no way out of this situation, Josh, still wearing his backpack and stinking of sweat, took the biggest, manliest bite from the sausage that he could muster. It was a pretty damn good sausage.
One of the men, a Macedonian – as he describes himself – invited us to stay at his house. We learned that this men was from the village, though now lives in Belgium with his two kids. He usually goes back home twice a year to see his family. He renovated his family’s house together with an architect from Macedonia and now regularly brings along his kids – both of whom speak Greek, and some Macedonian. “I want to teach them Macedonian, but I never learned the language in school, and so don’t know the sentence structures. But I speak to them, and that is how they learn it.”
Meliti is a great town that really comes to life in the evening. We enjoyed our stay in Meliti where we learned more about this village’s population exchange in the 1930’s, the Greek-Macedonian nature of the region, and the daily life in town. 
This is perhaps a good moment to say a few things about my own position in this project. I usually introduce myself as Swiss – a country in which I was born, whose language I speak fluently and accent free, and a country I call home, and happily so. Nevertheless, both of my parents had left the former Yugoslav Republic in the 1970’s, and all of our summers were spent in Banatski Karlovac, a little town north of Belgrade, with occasional stints to Montenegro and Croatia. I therefore speak the Serbian language, if with a ‘Guest workers’ accent’, as one of my acquaintances in Belgrade once put it. The majority of people on this trip, meanwhile, insist on my Serbian background. This makes for intriguing discussions about identity and belonging. One interlocutor, for instance, insisted that I could NEVER be Swiss as I was genetically Serb, seeing that both of my parents were from Serbia and Montenegro respectively. Seeing me as one of their own, people often narrate stories from a ‘we perspective’, expecting that I understand the question of migration intrinsically – that is from their perspective. I am thus consequently seldom introduced as a Swiss, but as a ‘girl from Serbia’, contrary to my insisting that I am Swiss.   

04.08.2016 Niki, Greece 

We were jaded by yesterday’s encounter with the monstrous dog, but barking dogs now seemed to be the norm. So we marched on, from Bitola toward the Macedonian-Greek border. We armed ourselves with pepperspray, ready to defend ourselves should we encounter another 110cm-tall beast. Indeed, we were unable to continue our trek at one point since two black sheepdogs barred our way in the mountain village of Velusina. Looking like fools but not caring, we shanghaied a local woman in the village square to come to our aid. She walked with us to the edge of the village, past the dogs, laughed at us for not using our hiking poles to thwart the canines and wished us well. 
Our trek followed a canal, and locals wisely sitting out the heat in the shade in plastic chairs always pointed out the direction toward the border, making sure we did not get lost. After hiking about 25km, we finally reached the border and the town of Niki. Not a single euro in our wallets, we assumed there would be an ATM machine. That was a mistake. All the stores and restaurants in town were closed, which is why we were not quite sure how to find a place to sleep in town. Thankfully, a gas station was open. Inside, a teenaged girl who spoke excellent English helped us organize a ride while her father organized a place to stay in Florina, a city about 20 kilometers to the south.
Florina is a wonderful bustling city at the foot of a mountain. Finding ourselves in a place with more than one restaurant, we scarfed down sumptuous zaziki, Greek salad, kevapi, and a delicious spleen – a Florinian speciality. Though our stomachs were bursting, the owners of the restaurant treated us to a platter of mouthwatering deserts. Tired from our walk and close to experiencing a food coma, we returned to our hotel to rest up for our upcoming hike from Niki to Meliti.  

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