Monday, November 30, 2015

#187: "Alphabet Autobiografica" by Eufemia Fantetti

Note: The Italian alphabet contains twenty-one letters: j, k, w, x and y are absent.

 A is for Andiamo

Pronounced: [Ahn-D’YAH-Moe] Translation: Let’s go. Verb, plural. Italian.
Yet in the Molisan dialect I have spoken my whole life we say yammacheen. There is a great margin for error then, for confusion and class system to enter into casual conversations, trip up the tongue. I have this problem in two languages. Witness the time I pronounced acquiesce as aqua-size, making my roommate think a new class had been added to the schedule at the nearby YMCA. Or when I said trapezing but meant traipsing. “You can’t come trapezing through here whenever you feel like it,” I say, accusing my boyfriend of being a Barnum and Bailey’s acrobat, casually back-flipping and sailing through my apartment.
I have an intense connection to the expression “Let’s go,” an attachment to the idea of: leave this place, go elsewhere, come with me. I borrowed Eliot’s famous beginning from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock—Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky—to use as a caption under my high school grad photo, summing up my farewell thoughts in the yearbook’s allotted twenty-five words or less. No “Keep in touch!” No “THANKS to A.H, J.K. & G.T - YOU GUYS ROCK!!!” More a poetic invitation, let’s blow this popsicle stand.

B is for Bonefro
Pronounced: [Bone- NAY-fro] noun. A village in Southern Italy, region of Molise.
Bonefro is our beginning. According to my mother, this place gave birth to our fierce, proud, better-than-everybody-else’s bloodline.
 We go back to the village for a summer the year I turn eleven. My mother’s health is deteriorating and she is convinced the climate of her youth will offer the best environment for convalescence. She wants to be close to her own mother.
Bonefro is tiny, chiseled out of the hillside, with buildings covered in cool rock tile that offer some relief from the unforgiving Mediterranean sun.
My Italian cousins find me curious. They find it difficult to follow the conversation as my parents and I flip between Italian dialect and mangled English in the same breath. Our speech is fragmented and sentences are splintered over forgotten words or incorrect translations. No one notices the problem until I ask Luisa to accompany me:
Lu, yammacheen u – Papa, come si dice store in Italian?”
My father doesn’t hesitate to reply, “Store è…is store.”
Luisa frowns. Store is clearly not how one says store in Italian.
“Wait minute…u sach è…I know is…”  My father is annoyed, frustrated that he cannot remember. He stares at the hand he has just been dealt in the card game Scopa and asks my mother to assist. She doesn’t know, doesn’t care. The word is gone, replaced. It’s not even on the tip of their tongues.
            My grandfather wins the round while my dad is distracted. Nonno shakes his head at the floor and again curses Columbus for discovering America.

C is for Che

Pronounced: [KAY] Translation: What. adjective.

The most popular word in our family lexicon. For example: What do you want from me? What do I care? What’s that got to do with me? What the hell is going on here? What’s the matter with you? What the hell is this mess? What, do you want a beating? What I know is when you’re lying to me. What, do you think you’re not asking for it? What, do you think a mother doesn’t know? What did I do, for the love of God, what did I do, to deserve a daughter like you? What I’m going to do when I get my hands on you.

D is for Dummy
noun. Self-explanatory.
I sit on the rococo-style loveseat at my Uncle Rocco’s while he continues to suggest food I should consider eating, everything stocked in his cupboards and wine cellar is on offer.
“We got provolone. I can cut up some proscuitt’ for you. Whaddya want? Gonna be while before dinner’s ready.”
I’m fine, I tell him, I can manage the half-hour wait.
“How’s school go?”
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I got a ‘D’ in creative writing.”
When I told my roommate I said, “How do I explain this to a family of mathematicians and science-brains? They will think I’m flunking macramé.”
“A ‘D’? You know what I tell my boys? D is for DUMMY. What’s a matter with you?” Then he raps on my skull, emphasizing that while it sounds hollow, a discerning squirrel would still choose a smarter place to store their precious stash.
I didn’t even know I had this uncle, or rather this cousin once removed, until planning my escape from Etobicoke [See E]. I told my father the good news—there was a university I wanted to attend. The bad news—it was on the other side of the country. Three time zones, a body of water and several thousand miles would separate us. I tried to sound sad and resigned; I shrugged what can you do, that’s life.
 “This is your house! You belong here.” A red brick bungalow, our homestead was both my father’s hard labored paradise and my sheltering Sing Sing.
The next day my father was calm. “It’s okay. I have a cousin there. He’ll watch out for you.”
“What cousin?” I ask, “What are you talking about? What, you couldn’t tell me this before? What, does that mean we’re everywhere?”
I felt like Al Pacino in The Godfather. Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

E is for Etobicoke
Pronounced: [E-TOE-be-KOH] n. A suburb, western portion of the City of Toronto.
The name Etobicoke comes from the Ojibwa language, wah do be kang and it means “place where the wild alders grow.” Trees that were cut down to put up donut shops, strip malls, and strip clubs.
In 1968, my parents follow the migration path of many Italians and make their way to North America, to the land of the glorious and free: Etobicoke.
My childhood is spent spitting distance from Mimico Correctional Centre and the old Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.
At night, I lie awake wondering what makes that unfamiliar sound outside my window.  I pray it’s a poltergeist, thinking that might be safer than an escaped convict or crazy person.

F is for Famiglia

Pronounced [Fah-ME-leah] Translation: Family. noun.
At the end of the movie Moonstruck everyone toasts in celebration of the clan. “Alla famiglia,” they cheer, the philandering father included. I saw the movie with a friend from high school, a mangiacake.
This is our derogatory word for Canadians, “ya bunch of cake eaters!” I’m not sure why. Was it someone who could afford to eat cake when immigrants ate bread and pasta? Someone who neglected to say “God willing” after one said “see you later”? Someone who could never understand the simple things in life like guilt, shame, or backbreaking poverty?
Some of my relatives went so far as to suggest Canadians didn’t know how to be a family. They kick their kids out of the house here. They charge them rent. They let them leave, unmarried! They implied this ability was natural to Italians without any proof.
For years my father and I were stranded on a deserted island like shipwreck survivors while my mother drifted further and further away on the wreckage, out with the tide, completely undone by her mental illness.
The surrounding family remained frozen, as petrified as the people buried alive in Pompeii.
My mother’s side said, “It’s not our problem.”
My father’s side said, “She’s not our blood.”
My father’s side was wrong; my parents are distant cousins.
The maternal side got nasty. “She wasn’t like this before! What have you done to her?”  The accusations were an attempt to thwart their guilt and any future responsibility.
My father thought there was something odd about his wife-to-be on their arranged wedding day, which was also their first introduction.
“This why you no have brothers and sisters. Before you born, I see she no right to make a family.”

G is for Genètica

Pronounced: [Gen-ETTE-ika] Translation: Genetics. adj. The scientific study of hereditary similarities and differences.
I sit in my room listening to my parents argue, unable to drown them out by blasting Duran Duran. I fantasize that I was left on the veranda by a caravan of kind but irresponsible gypsies. On days like these, I wouldn’t care if my long lost family turned out to be an intergalactic gang of cannibalistic aliens—they could put me to work as the spaceship’s scullery maid before we even left the Milky Way galaxy—as long as they would just come back for me.
The resemblance to both my parents is written all over my being. Everyone says I have my father’s smile. There is also the crook in the nose, the hair with a mind of its own, and the temper I will live to regret. I am my father’s disposition and my mother’s distorted thinking. I wish I could study my ancestors like blueprints, poring over the details (the paternal depression, the maternal madness) determining where I am the architect of my own fate and where my DNA is destined to intervene.

H is for Hyena

n. A flesh-eating animal, resembling a wolf or dog.
“You laugh like a dying hyena,” Stefano Santoanni tells me, as we paddle around in my best friend Monica’s backyard pool. Stefano is a Hell-sent harbinger, sounding the alarm; his annoying observations constantly provide a rude awakening for me.
A week before this, he commented on the cluster of warts on my right knee and suggested at top volume that I must still be infected with that childhood plague: the cooties.
“I got them from pointing at the moon,” I advise him with certainty, shaking my head at his stupidity. My mother told me this was the case and even though I had no recollection of doing so, why shouldn’t I believe her? Perhaps, I reasoned, I had done it in my sleep. Imagining myself as a sleepwalker satisfied some unsophisticated romantic notions.
“What happened then, FREAK? Little green Martians came down and kicked you there?”
Once he put it that way it did sound rather unlikely.
“My mother told me -” I start to say in my exoneration.
“She’s a freak to the power of infinity!”
He knows my mother is different from the neighborhood mothers, everyone knows. It’s impossible to miss when she shows up outside the schoolyard in her housecoat and slippers, pacing and yelling for me to come home in the middle of math class.
In suburbia, everyone can hear you scream.
            I learn to laugh quietly, cover my mouth to prevent any sound from escaping. I laugh in gasps, exhaling quickly and inhaling faster. My breath grows faint, shallow: apologetic for taking up space.

I is for Italiano

Pronounced: [E-tah-LEAH-no] Translation: Italian. noun.
When a co-worker asks me to read some poems in Italian for the upcoming Evening of Music & Poetry at the Cultural Centre, I say yes. I have some reservations but there’s this stubbornness, a “hard-head” quality I have inherited, testa dura in the mother tongue. In the end I am given only one poem to read. I race through the parts I continually mispronounce.
After the reading two women, sisters, approach me.
“You’re the Molisana,” the shorter one says, naming the region my father fled in 1962. “We read it in the program.”
“Yes,” I tell them, “My parents are Bonefrani.”
“Bonefrani? We’re from Casacalenda!”
It is a reunion across the Altantic, across accents and generations.
“Casacalenda? I’ve been there, I have two uncles from there!”
Why, we’re practically related.
“My Uncle Melfi,” I say and they nod. No, they don’t know him personally but Melfi is a popular last name in this part of Molise. Definitely, that makes me more legit. I am the product of two Bonefrani’s—I do belong here, finally, in this Cultural Center, having this conversation.
Welcome home, these are your people.
I may not have recognized this fact immediately because they’re wearing fur coats, religious gold bling, and the makeup could withstand a gale force wind.
Then I tell them my second uncle’s last name. It is a surname I always had trouble pronouncing, so much so that my father once said to me, “Please, just say uncle.”
The smiles on their faces falter as they turn to each other, confused. 
Telepathically they transmit ‘Did she just say what I think she said?’
The short one says, “I don’t think that’s right.” She speaks in English, to emphasize I’m now out of the back home club.
I try the name again, this time pronouncing the part I usually think is silent, cursing those Italian double C’s and silent G’s.
The sisters shake their heads. They had such high hopes for me, up until I said, “And my other uncle, his last name is Dickface.”
I’ve heard people proclaim Italian is the language of poetry, of the heart, the language of love. No wonder I find it so difficult. I can’t even sing the alphabet in that language, never mind form complex thoughts. I could probably find a bathroom in Italy, or a hotel, and comment on the weather. What more do they want? So much was lost in the transatlantic.
I can imagine what the sisters will say when they’re out of earshot. “Who ever heard of a last name like that? Is her family cursed?”
They edge away from me, slowly, in case I’m a carrier of the evil eye, spreading maledictions with my mispronunciations.

L is for Lucifer

The Prince of Darkness, a.k.a Satan, the Devil.
According to my father, this is my mother namesake. He thinks she’s a handmaiden of the Devil, descended from a foul family with the ability to curse and strike down their enemies, poison livestock and destroy lives.
Due to being born a day before the Saint’s feast day, my mother is named after Saint Lucia, a 4th Century martyr from Syracuse who wanted to join a convent and become a humble servant of God. My mother’s patron saint blinded herself in an attempt to avoid an arranged marriage.
I tell my now divorced parents that this seems strangely fitting and they both think I’m making foolish comparisons.
“I can see,” says my mother.
“One was saint and one demonia. No compare,” says my dad.
In my research I find out the name Lucia is derived from the Latin lux, meaning light, some interpret it as ‘of the light’.
My father thinks that’s a good one. Next he says I’ll tell him Stalin means kind and Hitler means peace.

M is for Mamma mia!
Pronounced: [MAH-MAH Me-ah] Translation: My mother! 1. An expression of anguish or surprise 2. ABBA, ‘nuff said.
            As in, “Mamma mia, that’s a spicy meat-ah ball!” Italians make great characters for commercials. They can sell pizza, olive oil and spaghetti sauce with gusto. McDonald’s had an ad with a fast talking Roman who only slowed down when she took her first bite of a Big Mac. As if.
            In Italy, men who do not separate from their mothers are called Mammoni’s, Mamma’s boys. I am a daddy’s girl, no surprise but a major disappointment to my mother.
“If I had a son,” she says, “He would love me more. Boys choose the Mamma. That’s why you no like me.” She ignores the violence she inflicts, the chaos she creates.
            My counsellor comments on how many sessions begin and end with my mom. She is my Alpha and Omega.
In the beginning there was the word, and the word was mother.

N is for Name
n. 1. A word by which a person, animal, place or thing is known.
            I am named after my paternal grandmother, who was named after her own grandmother, who in turn was named for someone else and back it goes till someone was named for the martyr, St. Eufemia.
Eufemia the Saint was among the early Christians thrown to the lions for her faith. There is reference to her being delectable to God. I gather the lions felt the same.
It is a name that wreaks havoc on a childhood, a name I mispronounce in English my whole life. On my first day of kindergarten my mother holds my hand tight. She repeats my name over and over to a teacher standing at the entrance to the school until the young woman points to a vowel-laden name on her clipboard.
My mother nods, “Si, si, e quello!” Yes, yes, that’s it.
The young teacher furrows her brow, purses her lips and does her best to say the unusual name. She politely ignores my mother’s insistent coaching; she simply can’t recreate the sounds.
 “She’s Italian name,” my mother tells her, “we Italian.”
“Yes,” the teacher replies, “I thought so. Come with me, I’ll take you inside and you can meet the other girls and boys. Say goodbye to your mommy.”
            The teacher’s best effort sounds close enough. From that moment on, I answer to two names.
O is for Omertà
Pronounced [O-mare-TAH] Translation: A code of Silence. Similar to secret, n. kept or intended to be kept from the knowledge or view of others.
Keeping a secret is a favorite childhood girlie game. The worse you are at keeping a secret the lower your worth as a friend. Having a crush = good secret. Being the daughter of a madwoman, not so much.
There are unspoken agreements of what must never be revealed, but I struggle with secrecy. I crack under the simple pressure of being a chatterbox.
            “What can you tell me about Omerta?” I ask my dad over the phone.
            “About what?”   
 “Omerta, does it mean silence?”
“Island?” he says “That’s isola
I repeat, slower and louder “Si-lence.”
“SILENCE!” I shout, “SILENCE! Do you think you could turn down the TV while you’re talking to me?”
“It’s not on,” he argues. “The volume was low. I never hear this word in my life. You sure is Italian?”
“It’s from the Mafia, a code of honor. You know, like keeping secrets.”
“Then what for you ask me? I look like Al Capone to you?”
“Maybe it’s appropriate, considering how often the police were at our house.”
“Don’t remind me,” he says. “Better don’t bring back bad memory. Burns my stomach, and this why you no can sleep at night.”

P is for Putana
Pronunciation: [POOH-ta-NAH] Translation: Whore.
There are so many ways a second generation girl can disgrace her family. Most occur through being independent or showing a personality that is not a basic extension of the mother’s desires.
When I stop wearing the ugly prairie dresses my mother sews for me, she considers it an aggressive act and begins to burn, bleach or throw out my favorite store-bought items.
 “You’re not going out dressed like that are you? You look like a gypsy whore,” she spits, like that’s the worst thing that can happen.
Forget the late night visits by Toronto’s finest to break up the domestic disputes, nasty fights with my father trying to fend off my mother’s aggressive attacks.  Want to make a police officer smirk? Tell them the perp is the wife.

Q is for Quarantine
n. 1. A period of 40 days  2. A state of enforced isolation

According to my Wordsworth Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, my ancestors survived repeated epidemics of the Bubonic plague, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, meningitis, smallpox and scarlet fever.
They endured multiple invasions by the French and the Spanish, countless earthquakes and disasters. Some must have avoided being burned at the stake as witches. Death and destruction is kept at bay long enough so I could be born, be here now. I feel like there must be something important I should be doing. Then I think about my mother, how she would not have survived in another era, with her garbled speech and insane chatter. 

R is for Remember
v. 1. To keep in one’s mind 2. Recall knowledge or experience to one’s mind; be able to do this.
“Why do you remember only the worst of everything?” My mother often asks me, usually after I’ve finished shouting at her for five minutes on my fabulous long distance plan about how she makes me crazy.
During one particularly bad year, I told her on Mother’s Day that she was the cause of my father’s severe depression and subsequent suicide attempt. On her birthday, I told her I despised her.
I lose control of so many conversations. We are passengers in a train wreck only a moment after I saw the danger. The locomotive is already halfway over the bridge strapped with dynamite and built over a rushing, turbulent river when I try to disengage, attempt to engineer an escape. I am always too late to save either of us from the heartache.
Shortly after the birthday phone call, I break down in my counselor’s office about my inability to remain calm, my boundless rage, my overwhelming need to avenge this past pain.
“I know she’s sick,” I say, “I understand that. Why am I being so stupid? I’ve wrecked her holidays.” It is one of those days where it hurts to breathe.
“Well,” my counselor says after a long pause, “you’ve still got Christmas and New Year’s.”
I laugh. I see myself as beyond redemption and my counselor humors me. She hands me the tissue box when I start bawling again. I might ruin everything; it is a very real possibility.
“Why do you remember only the worst of everything?”
The first time she asks me I am stunned.
“Because,” I finally answer, “there was so much of it.”

S is for Schizophrenia

[Skits-ŏ-FREEN-iă] n. 1. A mental disorder in which a person becomes unable to think or act in a rational way, often with delusions and withdrawal from social relationships. 2. A thirteen letter word that equals 32 points in Scrabble.
When people refer to a schizophrenic state of mind, they usually mean a mind divided against itself or a split personality, which is an archaic definition based on the etymology of the word from the Greek schizo (to split) plus phrēn (mind). Occasionally people will tell me they “felt schizophrenic”. I know for certain that is not possible.
I learn this champion board game word at fourteen, after my mother is diagnosed. Before that devastating day of revelations, everything I understand about mental illness is pieced together from Looney Tunes and gossip about the abandoned local psych hospital.
It is a dreary October day and I sit in a sterile, windowless office in front of the walk-in clinic doctor.
“Your mother has paranoid schizophrenia,” she says softly.
She is so quiet that I lean forward in my chair. I don’t want to miss anything.
“Do you know what that means?”
 I shake my head. “Does it mean she thinks she’s Jesus Christ one day and Napoleon the next?”
The doctor looks down at the file on her desk. “No,” she says, “it’s not like that.”
I look around at the stark white office walls and my gaze settles on a psychedelic poster of a bumblebee buzzing about, flitting from flower to flower. Along the bottom of the poster is written Bippity Boppity Bee, Beware of STD.
She explains the diagnosis while I stare at my feet. The room smells vaguely of rubbing alcohol.
I wonder if they’ll take my mother away, have her committed. I imagine the house without her, the silence. I would sleep through the night. Maybe they could quarantine her for madness.

T is for Time

n. The past, present, future. As in Time heals all wounds.
It does not. There are simply newer ones, fresher ones that take priority. You have to be quick with the iodine and the gauze, cut off circulation with a tourniquet to stop the flow of pain. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it’s just a minor flesh wound.
You need to update your Emergency First Aid. There will be days when you need to tilt your head back and listen for the sound of your own breathing. Check your pulse. Ensure you are able to resuscitate yourself to the point of functioning in the world.

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
Again with the Love Song. I can’t seem to help it. Perhaps my father’s right; I spend too much time thinking about things past.

U is for Universale

Pronounced: [Ew-knee-ver-SAHL] Translation: Universal. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of all or whole; as, the universal experience of mankind.
            “How’s they go?” my father asks about the writing.
            “Fine,” I say, “Guess who I’m writing about.”
            If I peruse the list in The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti, I would find I’m stuck on #16: Madness. The elements are simple enough, madman and victim.
            For a story to have meaning or carry weight, it must be universal. I tell my father this. For years I’ve been writing about my mother, sometimes feeling more disconnected, more maladjusted, more and more like the freak who will never fit in. Sure, I tell him, sometimes I get by with a little help from my friends but it feels like a giant masquerade.
And the writing? The writing. I am a one-note singer, a lame duck Pavarotti.     
            “I dunno,” my father says. “Everybody in the universe understand suffering.”

V is for Vattene

Pronounced: [Va-TEEN-eh] This is how you say “Get lost!” in Italian.
Whenever my mother gets angry she yells, “Va, va, vattene!” Go, go, get lost!  
One day I reply, “Va-va-voom, you!” 
She stares at me.
I sing to her in the melody of Hello Goodbye, “No so perche tu di vattene, i dich yammacheen.” I don't know why you say get lost, I say let’s go
She laughs.“Tu si schema,” she says. You’re silly.

Z is for Zulu
n. 1. A member of the Bantu people of South Africa. 2. Their language. 3. The final Letter of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet.
     I sit in my room trying to study for exam week. I can hear my mother ranting from the basement kitchen. She bangs pots and pans, slams cupboards and shouts, “Zulu-Zulu-Zulu!”
     I wonder for the umpteenth time if my mother is a misunderstood genius or psyche-linked to events and people in other places, other parts of the world, as if her insanity were really a porthole into another dimension of understanding that escapes me.
      I look at the books on my desk, books by Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, both recommended by my grade 10 drama teacher. I read just enough to mess me up, conclude that maybe my mother isn’t mentally ill, perhaps she’s acting out society’s crazy.
I yell, “Shut up!” I long for quiet.
She pauses, then shouts back, “Who’s bother you? Leave me alone—” and goes back to arguing with the voices in her head.
“You’re crazycrazycrazy!” I shout before retreating to my books.

What if I understood Italian?
What if I could communicate with my mother in the language of love?

Once when I was five, my mother listened as I sang my ABC’s and colored in a picture of Oscar the Grouch. She sat down beside me on the linoleum floor and attempted to learn the song. We sang through the alphabet twice together, my mother flubbing, falling into the Italian pronunciation of vowels and getting lost in the letters with no counterparts in her mother tongue.
“If only it made sense,” she laughed, “if only.”
She stood and adjusted her apron.
By the time my father came home from work, she was psychotic.

We don’t speak the same language. Most times we can barely understand each other. Our exchanges are tongue tiring and mentally draining. There is no shorthand we speak for our shared traumatic past. Our conversations are complicated by her delusions and everything is exacerbated by missing vocabulary, misunderstood meanings.
What if.
If only it made sense.


I wrote “Alphabet Autobiografica” after returning to school at the Writer’s Studio in Vancouver, Canada. A year of working full time during the day and being immersed in workshops, lectures and discussions about craft at night: I was exhausted and exhilarated.
            For years, I’d been writing on my own. Most of my efforts were an attempt to understand what happened in my childhood home. I was trying to make sense of my mother’s unrelenting schizophrenia and my father’s episodes of depression. I’d written about my parents in a play, a monologue, a short story, and an unfinished novel—the only form I hadn’t attempted was haiku: no cherry blossoms in our backyard.
            At school all my old insecurities lurked, escorting me from class to cafés to my computer. Who did I think I was? What did I have to contribute? Why was I spilling family secrets? I was ruminating about how difficult and draining it was to communicate with my mother and wondering (yet again) if the desire to connect with her was the impetus that propelled me to write; I was mulling over the complications of her progressively debilitating psychosis, our broken English and my useless fluency in a dying Italian dialect—a mangled Molisan—and mourning the lack of a dictionary, guide or manual to see us through all the challenges. One grey afternoon I was on the skytrain heading home and thinking about the way language changes through speech, much like a kindergarten game of Telephone, with multiple opportunities for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The thoughts lined up like dominoes—the piece was written not long after that dreary, dreamy ride and submitted as my final project. 



Eufemia Fantetti is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU and the University of Guelph’s MFA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction collection A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue Publishing) was runner up for the 2013 Danuta Gleed Literary Award and winner of the 2014 Bressani Prize. She teaches English at Humber College. Visit her at

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