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A Baltic Cruise with Swan Hellenic on Minerva II: 15 to 29 July, 2006

Saturday, 15 July: Back to college, but afloat and with more eating. That’s the pithiest summary I can devise for the Swan Hellenic Cruise Experience. This is a cruise line with a difference, aimed at the serious traveller with a scholarly interest in the cultures of the places to be visited—their history and geography, their art and politics, their architecture. The lecturers are not drawn from the celebrity circuit of soap opera, television presenters and tabloid columnists: they are university professors, retired ambassadors, bishops, hardback writers, all displaying impressive expertise in their various fields, whether born of long experience or specially mugged up for the voyage. By modern cruise standards Swan Hellenic’s only ship is small (just over 30,000 tonnes), and equipped with Swan Hellenic seriousness—big library of demanding books (fiction relegated to a few shelves in an obscure lounge but even then almost wholly confined to the English classics); no cinema or theatre, no casino, little dancing; no evening entertainment by questionable comedians, ageing conjurors or barely post-pubertal dancing girls: just the incessant scholarly lectures supported, if you’re lucky, by a fact sheet and a few slides, our lecturers mostly confessing that they haven’t yet learned management of PowerPoint. There are delightful classical music concerts given by a young and attractive group of singers and a piano accompanist. The food is excellent, tasteful as well as tasty, not served in nauseating quantities. The atmosphere explicitly aimed at is that of an English weekend country house party: resolutely upper middle class, heavily Home Counties, with no nonsense about multiculturalism. In every one of these respects it differs sharply from any other cruise we have experienced so far. Potentially intimidating, but so far, so pretty good.

Swan Hellenic has been a uniquely British – almost English – institution for around half a century or more, numbering among its devotees many noted writers, artists and other luminaries. Not long ago, however, the company, founded by the Swan family, was bought by an American mammoth cruise line conglomerate, Carnival, which also owns Cunard Cruises, P&O, Princess Line, and several other lines. There was some effort initially to preserve the British flavour of Swan, but a few months ago Carnival announced that Minerva II was to be transferred under a new name to its Princess flag, and converted into a more efficient milch cow with a casino and other nice little earners. The Swan Hellenic name will disappear, unless some other company is willing to buy the name and the brand – and able to find a ship to put them in. This seems unlikely. So there’s a general air on board Minerva of regretful valediction. People who have savoured a dozen or more Swan cruises are facing the fact that this will be their last. Execution is scheduled for April 2007. Truly a case of the Dying Swan.

Sunday, 16 July: A distinguishing feature of Minerva II is that there’s ‘open seating’ for all meals, so we can turn up at any time during the relevant period and sit where and with whom we like in either of the two main restaurants. This removes at a stroke the risk of being saddled every evening at dinner throughout the cruise with uncongenial table companions, and maximises the opportunities for brief acquaintance with a wide range of fellow-passengers. In fact an American couple met on an earlier cruise three years ago, Jim and Pam from Colorado, have booked up for this one too so we’ll be sharing a table with them at least some of the time. It’s good to see old friends again like this.

Today we are chugging up the North Sea all day with no calls at any of the ports on the itinerary, so the day’s programme is filled with the first lectures, including an inaugural session in which the ‘guest lecturers’ introduce themselves and their intended subjects. On this occasion the obligatory retired ambassador is Sir R C, whom I last saw on a short visit to Madrid where he was the ambassador and I was on a Foreign Office delegation for bilateral talks with the Spaniards on Africa. Later he became ambassador to Sweden and thus well equipped to talk to us about Scandinavian and other Baltic states’ history and politics. We have a chat together over a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich in the pool-deck buffet restaurant and are mutually surprised to find from the printed passenger list that we are two of at least five retired British ambassadors or high commissioners on board. I am not confident of recognising the others, never having met one of them and not having seen the other two for well over a decade. R C, more professional in these as in many other matters, knows all of them quite well.

The weather is cool but pleasant, with a stiff breeze and plenty of sunshine, as we head for Sweden. The temperature cools any potential ardour for a swim in the diminutive pool. I decide to postpone this pleasure.

Monday, 17 July: Goteborg (Gothenburg), which we first visited when we stayed with Sven and the wonderful Brita Ahman, in 1968 or 1969, she Sweden’s representative in the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee and a brave defender of the reality in Fiji whose people regarded her as a heroine, as indeed she was. Our guided tour of the town prompts a few, but only a few, memories of that long-ago visit. An obviously affluent and handsome place, hygienically clean and orderly in the Swedish way. Why do English towns and cities seem somehow grubby and old-fashioned compared with these modern western European cities? Even London begins to resemble New York rather than Goteborg (or Hamburg, or Sydney, or indeed Berkeley or San Francisco).

This afternoon Professor Christopher Andrew delivers his first lecture, on ‘Secrets of the Baltic’. He is an acknowledged expert on the shady world of intelligence and a practised lecturer, so much the latter that it’s tempting to enjoy what he says as a performance or entertainment instead of a contribution to our knowledge, which it is. We wonder whether he underestimates how much his Minerva audience already knows: our fellow-passengers strike us, so far, as somewhat less forbiddingly erudite than we had expected, but nevertheless pretty knowledgeable, if one can generalise about 600 or so people.

Warm and sunny, verging on hot. More of the same forecast for our other forthcoming ports of call.

Tuesday, 18 July: Professor Andrew lectures on ‘Gdansk and the collapse of communism’, making good use, with attribution to my former job but happily not to my name, of the titbit of information that I gave him last night – namely, that when I called on Lech Walesa in Gdansk in 1988 to say goodbye, he told me, in answer to my question, that he didn’t expect to play a recognised and legal role in Poland’s government ever again, because although the principles symbolised by Solidarity would triumph in Poland eventually, that wouldn’t happen in his own lifetime. Two years later, he was the elected President of democratic Poland.

In the afternoon we visit the castle at Kalmar, a pretty but rather insignificant little port town which we reach in the Minerva’s lifeboats, as Minerva, though small, is too big to tie up alongside and has to anchor a little way offshore. The main point of interest in Kalmar turns out to be not so much the castle as the extravagantly pretty young Swedish woman who guides us in shaky English round it, looking and sounding stressed out by the responsibility for finding something to keep us interested for the generous amount of time allotted.

Wednesday 19 July: We dock in Gdynia and get the tour bus on the hour-long journey in heavy traffic to Gdansk. This is a real nostalgia trip for us, recalling several visits from Warsaw in the late 1980s, shortly before the collapse of communism in east and central Europe. For us the most dramatic and significant thing in Gdansk is the Solidarity Monument outside the famous shipyard where Lech Walesa worked as an electrician and led Solidarity in its gallant resistance to Soviet communist control of Poland. Surprisingly to us, this barely figures in the Gdansk tour, which is devoted exclusively to the Old Town and its churches and other old buildings, lovingly restored (like so much of Poland) after the destruction wrought by the departing Germans. We stay behind after the tour for a good Polish fish lunch just by the Green Gate and catch a later Swan Hellenic bus back, which does take us past the Solidarity monument but without stopping there for us to take photographs. The Polish guide on the bus calls it the Shipyard Martyrs’ Monument, “sometimes not very correctly called the Solidarity Monument.” Apart from a brief reference to Lech Walesa’s house on the waterfront by the Green Gate, marked by a plaque, that’s the sum total of the official recognition as conveyed to us of the extraordinary events that began in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980 and which culminated (one might reasonably claim) in the collapse of the Soviet empire in east and central Europe, the discredited end of communism in Europe, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself, the greatest paroxysm of the 20th century. It all started here.

Thursday 20 July: At sea. Blessed relief, although highly irresponsible to say so. However the whole day is crammed with more and more erudite lectures. We are being force-fed with culture.

Friday 21 July: Tallinn, Estonia. Our excursion visits two churches, one Russian Orthodox, the other not. Another of the sights of the town is the Keik-in-de-Kok Tower, about which comment is superfluous apart from recording that I momentarily misread ‘Keik’ as ‘Kink’ in the Cruise Book. For future visits it might be worth remembering that a starring role in the Estonian national cuisine is played by blood sausage and sauerkraut, with the resounding name in Estonian of ‘mulgikapsad’. Happily, we are able to return to the ship in time for lunch, thus not forced to resort to mulgikapsad to keep body and soul together. One thing we have learned in Tallinn is that Lembit Opik, the mildly eccentric Liberal Democrat British MP of Estonian origin, is a hero to the Estonians, who are immensely proud of having their own kinsman at Westminster.

Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 July: St Petersburg. What is there left to say about this noble, grand, sad, declining, superannuated city? We used to visit it quite often from Moscow in the early 1970s when Soviet bureaucracy dogged us at every turn – no table for dinner available to us in the hotel where we used to stay, extreme difficulty of getting tickets to the Kirov ballet (now reverted to its pre-Soviet name, the Mariinsky, even though Kirov is still almost venerated in St Petersburg), terrible service in restaurants and hotels, mainly vile food, and so forth. Now, 30 years later, capitalism has spectacularly replaced communism as the city’s guiding light, commercial advertising everywhere instead of the giant posters of Lenin and building-length slogans proclaiming the successes of Marxism-Leninism. Once peeling buildings in need of a coat of paint have now been restored to their former glory, whether for the G8 meeting that immediately preceded ours, or more permanently since the fall of communism. But underneath, not so much seems to have changed. Living aboard our ship, we have no opportunity to sample St Petersburg’s hotels and restaurants, but this is our only port of call where we have to go through an elaborate immigration process when disembarking for our excursions, our passports minutely scrutinised by burly uniformed female immigration officers congenitally unable to acknowledge a friendly greeting, stamping the passport and banging it down on the kiosk counter with a comically hostile scowl (in every other country we visit immigration formalities are completed with the ship’s purser immediately after we dock and we stream ashore individually or in our groups a few minutes later, our passports securely stowed away in the purser’s safe). In St Petersburg we even have to present a photocopy of the relevant pages of our passports for the Russian authorities to take and file away, along with the passports themselves; and we are given red ‘propusks’ or passes on disembarkation that have to be handed back on return to the ship. What fate awaits the incautious visitor who loses his or her propusk while ashore, goodness alone knows.

On two of our four St Petersburg excursions we have a beautiful and graceful mature woman (in her early 40s) as guide. She tells J during one stop that her parents were not religious but that she developed an interest in the Russian Orthodox Church in her thirties, still in the communist era, and was baptised at that late age. The apparent revival in St Petersburg of religious observance, even among some of the young, is quite striking; presumably it is not a phenomenon unique to this city but Russia-wide. By contrast, we learn in each of the Nordic ports which we visit that church-going, although seemingly more widespread than in secular Britain, is declining. Even our graceful tour guide seems occasionally to betray adoption of a new, post-communist orthodoxy in her patter: she refers to the Romanovs having ‘left the country’ after the Tsar’s abdication, as if their murder in a Ekaterinburg cellar has been airbrushed like Trotsky out of official history; and she grimaces with disapproval and turns away in anger when a notably tactless member of our tour group asks her, after she has issued some particularly fierce instruction regarding our behaviour under her supervision, for directions to the Gulag.

The bus journey to the magnificent Peterhof Palace (in its earlier incarnation always called Petrodvorets) is almost as interesting as the palace itself, with many surviving reminders of the communist period: a building marked “39 Leningradskoe Shosse”, a Komsomolsky Square with a central monument to the Young Communists, roads and factories and institutions named after Kirov, even a surviving statue of him. Market stalls selling Matrushka dolls to tourists display rows of dolls representing, in one case, Lenin, Harry Potter, Stalin, Putin, George Bush and Tony Blair. We even spot one small but familiar bust of Lenin. At the Peterhof the great water cascade, which J had especially longed to see again, from beneath the palace in a series of broad waterfalls right down to the sea far below, has not been turned on during our visit because of a mysteriously impending ‘parade of lap-dogs’, a major disappointment (the lack of water cascade, not the lap-dogs, who parade only after we have left). In the palace we are horrified afresh by black and white photographs depicting the burned-out shell of the buildings after the Germans had blown them up immediately before their departure at the end of the 3-year siege of Leningrad (they never took the city, but they occupied the whole surrounding area including the Peterhof). Yet within a few years the palace and all its priceless, often beautiful contents had been lovingly replaced or restored by Russian craftsmen to their previous and current glorious condition, a monument to the supremacy, sometimes, of national pride over ideology.

In the evening of our first day at St Petersburg we go for a private visit to the Hermitage, after it has been closed to the public for the day, thus avoiding the huge crowds thronging the galleries during opening hours at this time of year. Inevitably we see only a handful of the huge rooms and an even smaller selection of the museum’s fabulous art collection – two small but magical Leonardos, some Titians badly in need of cleaning, one luminous Caravaggio, some superb and familiar Rembrandts. We spend too much time in each gallery, for my taste, being lectured on its history and that of its artefacts, not enough time left even to glimpse the famous collections of French impressionists, Cézannes, Picassos, modern Russian art, or indeed anything after Rembrandt. Even so, what we do see makes the whole cruise more than worth-while.

The visit ends with a half-hour concert by the Hermitage string orchestra, playing mainly Bach, Mozart, Puccini and Tchaikovsky, familiar and popular extracts from longer works, rendered with immense vigour, con brio passim, the effect unfortunately marred by being heard in a huge cavernous gallery resembling an echo chamber which produces a fatally muddy sound – not at all the fault of the musicians or indeed of anyone else, although the acoustics suit romantic Tchaik much better than the doubtless crisp brisk playing of Bach and Mozart, echoes turning every musical phrase into fugue. A glass of warm, sweet Sovietskoye champanskoye rounds off the occasion, and we emerge from the Winter Palace into Palace Square to find it almost deserted, the late evening sun bathing the whole glorious place in brilliant golden light. There could be no more vivid reminder that this must surely be the most beautiful and impressive square in Europe, perhaps in the world: a breathtaking moment. It is 10.30 in the evening and the sun won’t set for another hour or more.

Monday 24 July: Helsinki. More poignant reminders of long-ago visits from Moscow, where Helsinki was the source, not only of the nearest reliable dentist, but also of much of our daily bread (and milk and vegetables and meat and fish and most other western necessities), despatched to the embassies weekly by train. The famous Finnish department store, Stockmanns, was for us in Moscow synonymous with the source of all kinds of goods, a kind of Sainsburys, Tesco and Waitrose rolled into one. One of our children at this time was under the perfectly understandable impression that Stockmanns was the capital of Finland. On our city tour we pass the familiar store, but learn from our witty Finnish guide that there are now branches of Stockmanns in Moscow itself, as well as in St Petersburg and all over the rest of Finland too. So it must have lost most of its former magic.

On our tour we spend a few minutes in the thriving quayside market, stalls loaded with craft products of invariably impeccable taste, as well as fruit, vegetables, clothes and tourist souvenirs. In a rack of baseball caps one bears the legend ‘Hellsinki’. I query the second L with the young beauty minding the stall. “Well,” she says, grinning, “in the winter…”. All too plausible. The witty Finnish tour guide conveys in his entertaining commentary his country’s often troubled relationship with sometimes awkward and much bigger near neighbours: Sweden, Russia and the former Soviet Union, Germany. Not surprisingly he glosses over, in describing Finland’s two wars against the Russians during WW II, the alliance with Nazi Germany, although in the circumstances the brave dogged Finns cannot have had much choice. He points out with some pride that only three European capitals of belligerent countries got through the second world war without suffering foreign military occupation: London, Moscow and Helsinki. Thanking him at the end of the tour I suggest that one of Finland’s products of which all Finns could be proud was outstanding international public servants, citing Kurt Jansson (the largely unsung hero of the 1984–86 Ethiopian famine relief effort) and the prince of peacemakers, Martti Ahtisaari, mysteriously still unnoticed by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and still active in good works, currently seeking, with others, a negotiated solution to the problem of Kosovo’s future. (It was then Finnish President Ahtisaari who was largely instrumental in discreetly negotiating with the Serbs in 1999 the agreement which gave NATO a much-needed fig-leaf behind which to end the fruitless and increasingly murderous bombing campaign, itself based on and publicly defended by reference to the fraud perpetrated at Rambouillet, eerily foreshadowing the equally criminal fraud preceding the attack on Iraq. But that’s another story.)

Tuesday 25 July: Stockholm. Return to the Vasa – royal Swedish flagship that capsized and sank on her maiden voyage in 1628 and was recovered from the sea-bed in 1961, virtually intact (shades of Mary Rose). We first saw Vasa later in the 1960s when she was still being sprayed and soaked in salt water and chemicals to stop her drying out prematurely and cracking. Now, fully dried and restored in every detail, she stands proudly in the purpose-built museum erected around her, more or less as she looked nearly 400 years ago. We’re told that if she had been built a metre or two wider, she would not have capsized, in which case we wouldn’t be seeing her now.

We’re tour-guided round Stockholm’s sumptuous City Hall and admire the Golden Hall where the Nobel prize ceremony is held each year. The surprisingly crude murals and acres of gilding are not attractive. But each year’s Nobel prize winners can be forgiven if they refuse to let the garish décor spoil the exultation they must feel at this unsurpassable accolade. (The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place in Oslo.)

It’s good to have confirmation of our memories of a noble and stately city, superb public buildings enhanced by waterways everywhere.

Wednesday 26 July: We dock at Visby, old Hanseatic city and capital of Gotland, still in Sweden. The tour for which we’re booked involves crossing a limestone plateau, visiting a fishing village, admiring stones set in the shape of a fish and spending 40 minutes wandering round the Old Town of Visby. The sun is hot and we decide to play truant, lazing on the sun deck by the pool with books and (in my case) having a leisurely swim. I finish William (Lord) Deedes’s book about his visit to Addis Ababa as a newspaper correspondent in 1935 to cover the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) with Evelyn Waugh. Am impressed to discover that on a later visit to Addis in 2000 at the age of 90 to cover the re-burial of Haile Selassie’s remains, Deedes is using a laptop to transmit his reports to London. I keep meaning to write to him to add a few details to his account of Waugh’s earlier visit to Addis in 1930 to cover Haile Selassie’s funeral, the occasion of Waugh’s falling out with Esmé Barton, daughter of the British Minister to Ethiopia, Sir Sidney Barton. Esmé later married George Steer, the celebrated Times correspondent in Ethiopia during the war, and after Steer’s death married a British businessman. Following her tiff with Evelyn Waugh he had his revenge by modelling Prudence on her, Prudence being the daughter of the British Minister in Black Mischief who is eventually eaten by cannibals. We knew Esmé well during our time in Addis Ababa in the mid 1980s when she used to spend part of every year in her Addis Ababa tukul, persuading successive British ambassadors (including me) to promise to allow her to be buried in the tiny cemetery in the embassy compound, a subtropical 88-acre park, if she succeeded in dying while in Ethiopia. Unfortunately for her, Esmé later died in England, but not before giving us a splendid and uproarious account of how she and Waugh had actually fallen out in 1930. I think Bill Deedes will enjoy it. He’s now well over 90 but I don’t think there’s any need for haste in passing the story on to him as he’s clearly immortal.

Thursday 27 July: Copenhagen. Another agreeable city tour awakening many nostalgic memories of previous visits. It’s the hottest day of the cruise so far and the excursion is slightly marred by the malfunctioning of our coach’s air-conditioning system. Luckily I have brought my small battery-operated pocket fan with me which saves me from serious over-heating until the driver takes advantage of the hour we spend in the Rosenborg Palace to swap the defective vehicle for a new coach whose AC works fine. We admire again the lovely Amalienborg Palace square and enjoy a walk along the Nyhaven canal where we once had an excellent lunch with our old Danish friend H D. What pleasant and civilised cities these Scandinavian capitals are!

Saturday 29 July: Dover. We wake up expecting to see white cliffs, but instead see only a dull grey blanket. Fog has closed the port of Dover. Minerva wallows as if becalmed. Now and then the engines change note and we move forwards, very slowly. Last breakfast in the Bridge restaurant before the queues form, everyone wanting to get their breakfast before having to quit their cabins for the last time by 8.30 am. We grab comfortable easy chairs in the now familiar Lounge, surrounded by our hand luggage, magazines and books for what could prove to be a long wait. Suddenly the fog seems to lift and we move smoothly into the harbour to our berth. Very soon afterwards the first group to disembark is called. Our heavy luggage – two big heavy suitcases and three other bags – has disappeared during the night from outside our cabin: we experience a familiar nagging doubt about whether it will all be there on the quayside waiting for us to drag the cases and bags onto a trolley and wheel them to the car in the huge car-park opposite. And will the car start after two weeks’ idleness, the intruder alarm, clock and sundry other systems methodically draining the battery? Shall we be able to get our five bags and hand luggage plus Jim’s and Pam’s three suitcases into our modest car (we’re taking their bags home with us while they travel to Wandsworth on the Swan Hellenic coach and the train, to stay with us for a few days)? Fortunately all goes well and after horrendous traffic gridlocks on the M25 motorway and a quick visit to the Asda supermarket at Roehampton on the way home for immediate needs, we drive the last 100 metres to the house – and pass Jim and Pam on the pavement with their hand luggage, waving to us just a tad wearily but with relief. Superbly synchronised, and we’re home in time for lunch notwithstanding fog, gridlock and shopping.

Looking back: We ask ourselves whether we would want to go on more Swan Hellenic cruises if Swan Hellenic were somehow to be reprieved and to continue beyond next April. We are slightly ashamed to have to admit that we probably wouldn’t. We enjoyed the Baltic cruise, especially the returns to St Petersburg and Gdansk which once loomed so large in our lives; and we enjoyed, too, much of the Swan Hellenic ambience of civilised comfort and scholarly attention to the places we were visiting: the serious library, the expert and knowledgeable lectures, the rigorously informative excursions. It was good to enjoy ‘free seating’ at all meals, with freedom to sit where and with whomever else we liked, a rare luxury compared with most other UK-based cruise ships. Our fellow-passengers were almost uniformly congenial company, many with shared interests and backgrounds. And yet… there was something a little airless about the relentlessly serious atmosphere and the slightly but unmistakably smug middle-class, Home Counties climate; the polite hush, the irreproachable table manners. We bridled just a shade too often at some of the assumptions voiced by perfectly decent table companions at mealtimes, fastidious assumptions about the offensive commercialism of other, lesser cruises, like being on a floating casino, they reckoned, few having experienced such a thing. We found ourselves mildly hankering for the breezy vulgarities of other cruises: the mixture of accents; the uninhibited laughter; the evening entertainments with the rather smutty comedian, the magician with his tights-clad moll, the teen-age dance troupe; the three swimming-pools, big enough for a decent swim. We’ll be glad to be back next year on a floating casino (even though we never go near the casino) where the excursions won’t start at 7.30 in the morning (and won’t be so lengthy that the nervous accompanying local guides don’t run out of patter an hour before we’re allowed back on board), where you don’t feel guilty about not taking notes in the lectures, where there’s trashy fiction as well as heavy history in the library. We’re glad that we experienced a Swan Hellenic cruise before the curtain comes down on solemn little Minerva II. But once has really been enough. Bring on the dancing girls!

London, August 2006

One comment on The Dying Swan: Diary of a Baltic Cruise

  • Malcolm McBain says:

    We have just returned (July 24) from a Baltic cruise on Minerva 1 operated by a company calling itself Swan Hellenic.  It is the very same Minerva that we first cruised on in 1997.  I thought our cabin had  aged  a bit since 1997, but it was fine.  There was only one other  former British  ambassador among the 200 odd passengers.  We called at Elsinore, Sassnitz, Gdansk, St Petersburg, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.  We had to miss Visby owing to strong winds. The weather was wonderful throughout despite heavy seas for the first two days.  Several passengers remained in their cabins for this passage through the North Sea.  There was a heat wave in St Petersburg, which was littered in astonishingly pretty girls in alarmingly mini skirts and very high heels. Returning to Salisbury through torential  rain starting at Dover, we were struck again at how every Baltic town we visited was entirely free of litter and graffiti and how scruffy Salisbury and its inhabitants are by comparison. 
    Dear old Minerva managed to keep up the old traditional standards with distinction.  Personally, I think Carnival made a bad error of judgement when they junked Minerva in favour of the much larger Minerva II.  They have been lucky to get the old ship back together with quite a lot of old clients. We thought the food was perhaps not as good as it used to be but perhaps we have become more critical.  We had good, unmissable lecturers including for the Dover to St Petersburg sector only a brilliantly clever Russian from the Hermitage, where he is curator of the Department of Western art.  His command of English and knowledge of contemporary affairs was striking.      
    All in all a very good 15 days.   

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