Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Category: French polite codes

Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle

You know, just one of the things which never ceases to astonish the Frenchman in us is not only how familiar you English are with those you’ve just made the acquaintance of, but how distant you can be with people you’ve known for years. We mean, isn’t it far more logical to be friendly and relaxed with people you know, and just polite with those you don’t? A well-brought-up young Frenchman on meeting a girl for the very first time, will politely address her as ‘mademoiselle,’ and after they get married she will certainly become ‘ma chérie.’ In contrast, an Englishman will use ‘darling’ or ‘love’ to address a girl he’s never met in his life before, yet proceed to call her ‘missis’ once they have walked down the aisle! But on reflection, is it all that surprising that you English should go about addressing people the opposite way to what they ought? Après tout, what can you expect from a people who drive on the left (sure proof they’re not right in their head), and take roundabouts the wrong way round? So who can deny that it’s the French who’ve got things right? For what’s more normal that, when you meet someone you hardly know, you address him or her with a polite ‘bonjour monsieur,’ ‘bonjour madame,’ or ‘bonjour mademoiselle?’ in the morning or afternoon, and ‘bonsoir’ in the evening? And it goes without saying that if you decide to stop for a chat these same rules oblige you to say ‘au revoir, monsieur/madame/ mademoiselle’ when you part.

It’s also important to note that the French titles ‘monsieur’, ‘madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’ are not, as many of you English seem to imagine, always the exact equivalent of ‘sir’, ‘madam’ and ‘miss’.  For while the French titles are simply polite, the English words ‘sir’ (apart from its use as a title of nobility, i.e. Sir Winston Churchill), ‘madame’, and ‘miss’ are both polite and deferential, and as such used to address someone perceived as being in a position of social, professional (or commercial) superiority. Consequently, if you wanted to address a stranger in an English street in order to make a request or ask a question you’d simply say ‘excuse me’ (and not ‘excuse me sir/madam’). In France, on the other hand, it could be considered impolite not to say, ‘excusez-moi (or s’il vous plaît) monsieur/madame’ or ‘bonjour monsieur/madame’. If you were addressing a young, unmarried woman, however, it would be a little old hat to say ‘excusez-moi/s’il vous plaît/bonjour mademoiselle’, and a simple, more informal ‘bonjour’ would suffice. But just to complicate matters, it’s probably better to say ‘madame’ when addressing an older, unmarried woman as ‘mademoiselle’ could give her the impression she’s on the way to becoming an old maid. What’s more, in the name of female equality, the public sector has been recently instructed to use ‘madame’ when referring to an unmarried female in official documents.

Normally, then, the codes of French polite etiquette require you to address a stranger or a person you hardly know by his or her title: monsieur, madame or mademoiselle.  On getting to know the person a little better you can pop on the surname (i.e. bonjour, Monsieur Martin). Unlike in Anglo-Saxon cultures, however, Christian name terms are usually considered only when you really begin to hit it off. Though this is becoming old-fashioned, a subtler halfway point consists in showing slightly more cordial respect towards someone who is more than just an acquaintance, but far less than a bosom friend, by simply using the title to which the Christian name is appended, i.e. Monsieur Pierre. Considerable time may elapse between each phase – though this is not necessarily a question of duration – and, depending on the case, the relationship may even remain stable at one defined point. As a general rule, the longer you remain at one stage, the more difficult it is to progress to the next, and you may never get beyond the Monsieur Martin point with someone from whom you are separated by a difference in age, social or professional status, or even gender.

In the France of today, there is, however, an increasing tendency simply to use a simple ‘bonjour’ to greet a person we don’t know or only know slightly – especially in the friendlier context of a club or association where adding the person’s title would be considered too formal. Here ‘bonjour’ is very much the equivalent of the English ‘hello’ (though this seems to have been now almost totally eclipsed by the American ‘hi’). If you meet someone you’ve already encountered that same day you would normally not shake hands (or cheek-kiss) a second time. It would, nevertheless, be polite to say ‘re-bonjour’ (literally ‘hello again’), or simply use the abbreviation ‘re’.

Another common mistake on the part of Anglo-Saxons is to confuse ‘bonjour’ with ‘salut’. Be aware that ‘salut’ is far more familiar than ‘bonjour’ and is, therefore, only appropriate when greeting someone (it can be a man or women but is more common between men) with whom you are on very informal terms. I suppose it’s somewhere more or less the equivalent of the American ‘hey’. It can also be used to say goodbye – in which case it’s rather like the English ‘so long’. Curiously, I’ve even heard old male pals greeting each other with a ‘salut monsieur’, where the juxtaposition of the very informal and very polite produces an absurdly comic effect.

Though there are few French equivalents to the numerous terms of endearment you English insist on applying to greet complete strangers (‘love’, ‘dear’, ‘duck’, ‘darling’, to name just a few) we do sometimes hear market stallholders treating some female customers to a familiar, slightly patronizing ‘ma petite dame’, or even ‘ma chérie’. The latter is very much the same as the English ‘my dear’, and offence mustn’t be taken at either. However, we do personally take exception to the ironically familiar appellation ‘chef’ (literally ‘chief’), in many ways equivalent to ‘mate’, and used to address another male somewhere perceived as being ‘superior’. In cases like this we usually reply in much the same vein by a mockingly egalitarian ‘camarade’. But on some occasions we’ve been known not to reply at all!

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ?  In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.

Get started here :  http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

 

 

 

 

Tu or Vous?

It might be thought that, under normal circumstances, politeness, especially when served up in its friendly form, can only go to unite. But what is less surprising with the French and English (where things are never normal) that it can frequently divide? And what greater damage has been inflicted on Anglo-French relations than that inoffensive-sounding little subject pronoun tu? You know, the Frenchman in us can’t help thinking it’s that same irrepressible desire to get on cordial terms with every Tom, Dick and Harry in less time than it takes to say Jacques Robinson which makes so many Anglo Saxons consider it an open sesame to instant friendship with all. Take the case of Sue.
      Last year, our neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Martin, had a young English au pair girl, Sue. Now Sue had just left school and, before going on to study French at university, she had decided to take a sabbatical year working in France with the aim of improving her spoken language and knowledge of French customs and lifestyle. The problem was that at the beginning of her séjour she systematically used the familiar tu to address all and sundry as a signal that she wished to be on friendly terms with all. Finally, Madame Martin had to take her to one side and explain that, though natural with people of her own age, using tu to address complete strangers, those she barely knew or whose social or professional status, age or even gender created a distance, was little more than misplaced familiarity – a discourteous lack of respect akin to a youngster in England addressing an adult he barely knew by his Christian name. Consequently, to avoid any risk of giving offence, she could only advise her to use the more distantly polite (and also plural) equivalent vous and, as a general rule, to leave it to the native speaker to call the tune.
     But while the more formally-structured codes of French polite etiquette usually require a stricter adherence to prescribed or customary forms with the result that you would normally use tu only to address relatives and friends, this is merely a broad indication and exceptions may occur. For example, in the past especially, but sometimes even today, some parents from the grande bourgeoisie, the upper middle classes, still require their children to address them by vous!  And though we have known my wife’s brother-in-law (as well as two of her cousins) for more than 40 years now, we have always used, and will certainly continue to use le vouvoiement. So, it’s important to realize that longstanding vous relationships of this type will probably be entrenched for life. It is also not uncommon for an older person to use le tutoiement when addressing a younger one (especially someone known since childhood) while the latter continues to uses the more respectfully polite vous.
     To complicate matters even further, though we would normally use vous to address those we’re not on familiar terms with, we can, in some circumstances, be on tu terms with those we hardly know. This is especially the case in a club or association where members are considered to be amicably united in pursuit of a shared activity or goal. So really there’s no hard and fast rule: things may depend on the situation you find yourself in, and/or the nature of your relationship, and it all boils down to a question of what you (and the other person) feel the more comfortable with.
     But, as our Frenchman has to admit, sometimes the choice between tu and vous can be both subtle and complex – even for a native speaker. At our golf club, for example, we sometimes play with a member some twenty years younger than us. When playing together we quite naturally use the tu form to address each other. But strangely, back in the clubhouse over a drink he reverts back to vous – presumably in deference to our age. This puts us in a rather embarrassing position. How do we react? Do we continue to use tu or, like him, go back to using vous?  In cases like this it’s probably better to discuss things openly and come to some form of mutual agreement on the use of one or the other. This is what we did on one occasion while playing a round of golf.
     As we were preparing to tee off on the last hole a lady came up and greeted us with a, ‘Bonjour, Barry. Comment ça va?’
‘Mais ça va très bien!’ we replied, recognizing Geneviève, a lady golfer we hadn’t seen for some time.
‘Et …?’
     We hesitated for a fraction of a second. Were we previously on vous or tu terms? We couldn’t for the life of us remember! So, it must have been our formally polite French part who prompted us to choose, ‘Et … vous?’ The expression of disappointment which momentarily clouded her face said everything. Fortunately, on realizing his mistake, our Frenchman managed to retrieve the situation by saying, ‘Oh, excuse-moi! On se tutoyait, non?’ For the short conversation which followed was full of friendly warmth.
     

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ? In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.
Get started here : http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

Shaking Hands With The French (2)

At friendly social gatherings it’s considered polite for a man to go round and shake hands with everybody he knows (and also, as described above, with friends of friends he hasn’t met before). When numbers make this impracticable you could possibly get away with a ‘bonjour tout le monde’ accompanied by a friendly wave of the hand. The handshake is less important when you leave, but still appreciated – particularly by those you’ve been in conversation with. Slinking off without saying a word is not to be recommended – so, once again, when shaking everybody’s hand is not convenient, a general ‘au revoir tout le monde’ won’t go amiss.
In similar informal circumstances a woman would be expected to cheek-kiss those men and women she was on friendly terms with, and would normally be required only to shake the hands of the men she had not previously met (though, in very informal circumstances, she could even cheek-kiss these). Shaking hands with a woman she was not previously acquainted with would be reserved for more formal occasions, and at parties and other friendly social occasions it would be more appropriate to cheek- kiss.
Similar rules apply at the workplace where, on arrival, it’s important for a man to go round and shake hands with his closest male colleagues while kissing women on the cheek. Care must be taken not to miss anybody out as this would be considered bad manners and could cause offence. So much a part of polite everyday French culture is this that, in many cases, even the boss will go round the office and factory each morning shaking hands with both male and female staff, regardless of the position they occupy in the company. Similarly, on arriving at company meetings men shake hands with men and cheek-kiss women colleagues. The Brit or American might think this sort of ritual is a source of much time-wasting. This can certainly be true. A French friend of ours informs us that, in the company where he works, one employee systematically goes round both office and factory shaking hands with or cheek-kissing each of a total of around 50 male and female colleagues. He reckons that at least twenty minutes is spent doing this each morning!
It’s also recommended that you shake hands with your plumber when he rolls up to replace a tap washer. In fact, so much importance is attached to this that if his hands are full, dirty or wet a French tradesman will frequently offer a forearm, a wrist – or even a little finger! If you’re greeting him outside in cold weather don’t forget to take off your glove. And even though it’s more appropriate to cheek-kiss small children you could, nevertheless, shake the hand of an older boy. He could be flattered by this since, in his eyes, you’re treating him as you would a man.
The handshake itself should be relatively brief but firm – une poignée de main molle, a limp handshake, will do nothing to convince the other of your sincerity. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a bone cruncher, and the French tend neither to pump nor linger. It’s also important to look at the person whose hand you’re clasping. If you’re talking to someone else at the time, break off the conversation, verbally greet the person you’re shaking hands with, and look him in the eye. Personally, there’s nothing we personally hate more than a man silently extending his hand in our direction while continuing to talk to (and look at) another. It gives us the impression we don’t count for very much. The double-handed shake (i.e. using one hand to shake that of someone, while placing your non-shaking hand either on it or halfway up his arm) is normally confined to politicians. In a world where the word ‘never’ frequently means ‘not today’, it’s not a proof of sincerity. And placing your non-shaking hand on the other’s shoulder or using it to pat or slap him on the back are also not guaranteed to convince – though a previous Président de la République did frequently resort to both!

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ? In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format. Get started here :   http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

 

   

Shaking Hands With The French (1)

It is a double paradox that a people like the English or Americans whose perception of politeness requires them to make total strangers believe they are their instant bosom friends should become so coldly distant when it comes to shaking hands, while their more formally polite French neighbours should attach such vital importance to seizing the hands of those they frequently have only the slightest acquaintance with.
Though shaking hands plays an important part in both Anglo-Saxon and French business culture as a means of expressing sincerity and cordiality when meeting, parting, being introduced or concluding deals, squeezing the hands of others is not systematically resorted to in day-to-day Anglo-Saxon life. In the normal course of events it is mainly restricted to those friends and relatives you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing for a considerable length of time, and is more often confined to men (women tend to kiss). And when you’re introduced to strangers at a social gathering in England you can even get away with a simple ‘hello’, accompanied by a friendly nod of the head. As a result, the Englishman can go for days, even weeks, without being called upon to slip his hand into that of another.
The newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat would do well to note, that France social etiquette requires you to make repeated daily use of the handshake as a tangible sign of your friendly inclinations towards other males, and that staring uncomprehendingly at a Frenchman’s proffered hand can not only be a source of considerable offence, but cause you to run the considerable risk – though some allowances might possibly be made for that legendary English reserve – of being labelled unfriendly or even impolite. So, whenever you meet a French male acquaintance (you don’t need to know him all that well) in the supermarket or the High Street, shaking hands should become a reflex or, if he draws first (as, being French, he almost certainly will), to seize his hand warmly in yours. This is expected, even if you don’t have time for a chat. And if you can spare a moment to converse, it’s important to note that a second poignée de main, though not systematic, can be required when you part.
If your male friend or acquaintance is accompanied by someone you’re not personally acquainted with, you must first shake hands with the former and then, since it would be impolite to exclude him, with the other. This can, of course, depend on circumstances and the numbers involved. Generally speaking, however, it will be appreciated as a sign of warmth and conviviality. The other day, for instance, we played a round of golf with two French friends. Afterwards, the three of us had a drink together on the terrace of our clubhouse. As we were sipping our beers a pal of one of our friends arrived, shook his hand, and then – since it would have been impolite to ignore the other two of us – proceeded to shake ours and that of our other friend. He could, of course, have simply bid us a friendly ‘bonjour’, but the physical contact involved in shaking hands added an extra touch of cordiality – especially appropriate in a socially-oriented golf club context. Nevertheless, Anglophone expats may be relieved to know that if you meet the same male friend or acquaintance for a second time in the same day you’re not expected to shake hands again (though normally this won’t go amiss), and the simple recall, ‘On s’est déjà serré la main’ will suffice.
As far as greetings between male and female are concerned the rules are a little different as the type of greeting will depend very much on your degree of friendship. If you’re being formally introduced for the very first time shaking hands (even between women) would be necessary. Things are more delicate, however, if you’re already acquainted. Once again, depending on how well you know each other, you might offer her your hand or simply greet her with a polite ‘bonjour’. Be aware, however, that, in theory, at least, the rules of polite French etiquette require a man to shake a woman’s hand only if she first offers him hers. If you know her well, the bise, the cheek-kiss (more about this later), will more likely be resorted to.

Have a Nice Something!

The French custom of wishing you a nice something on parting

‘Have a nice game of Scrabble!’

Given the doubtful nature of English cooking, the Frenchman in us can certainly understand why you Brits can’t be gulled into taking seriously someone who expresses the wish that you have a nice meal. He would, nevertheless, have thought that a conception of politeness which encourages you to display, from the very moment you meet, a maximum of familiarity towards your fellow man – even when he’s a total stranger – would, at least, require you to have the decency, on parting, to express the hope that you have a nice day. Toutefois, when you think about it, what could be less astonishing that a people who for centuries were preached to night and day that enjoyment of any kind was a cardinal sin should rarely wish one another a nice anything?
     Nevertheless, anyone wanting to embrace French lifestyle and culture to the full must be aware right from the start that the Gallics are incapable of parting from those they’ve been chatting to (even when not much more than half a dozen words have been exchanged) without systematically wishing they have a nice something. Such a well-established and accepted part of French polite etiquette is this that not expressing the wish that you have a nice walk, a nice game of golf or a nice journey would be perceived, at best, as a glaring omission and, at worst, the height of discourtesy.
     The most frequently-encountered of these turns of phrase are focused on parts of the day or week – ‘bonne journée’, ‘bon après-midi’, ‘bonne soirée’, ‘bonne nuit’, ‘bon weekend’, counting among the most common. Others (the untranslatability of which somewhere seems to endorse the fact that they’re alien to Anglophone polite culture) are more specific, and split morning, afternoon and evening into beginnings and ends: ‘bonne fin d’après-midi’ (literally ‘have a nice end to your afternoon’), ‘bon début de soirée’ (‘have a nice beginning to your evening’). And ‘bon réveil’ (‘have a nice wake-up’) is a favourite with early-morning newsreaders. What’s more, the custom is flexible enough to embrace any activity you’re already, or are soon to be engaged in and, if this is of a challenging or irksome nature, a ‘bon courage’ is usually forthcoming. In addition, you can be wished a vague, all-embracing ‘bonne continuation’ (‘continue having a nice whatever you’re doing now’) – even when you’re doing nothing at all! So the number of variants is without limitation (we’ve even heard ‘bonne partie de Scrabble’ (‘have a nice game of Scrabble’).

This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book, Barry’s Frenglish Folies – ‘A potpourri of humorous, serious, and humorously serious reflections on the French and English seen through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

Barry’s Frenglish Folies is available as a free Kindle download at :

                          https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MZ39MUB

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Unfriendlily Polite?

Some kind of stockbroker?

All right. So, in true Anglo-Saxon spirit, you’ve started out on friendlily polite terms with someone you barely know. The problem is what do you do when things don’t quite work out as friendlily as you’d have liked? How do you become unfriendlily polite? Only the other day, for example, someone cold-called us (he was American judging by his accent) … from New Delhi, of all places! We don’t really know how he’d got hold of our name, and we later cursed ourself for not thinking to enquire. After we’d informed him he was correct in his assumption that he’d got Barry Whittingham on the end of his line, without so much as a by your leave he proceeded to drop the family name. And then, in between all the Barrys, we began to realize that he was asking us to believe he was some kind of stockbroker, and that the instant friendship his insistant use of our first name seemed to imply obliged him to reveal that, if we invested a rather daunting amount in the shares of a certain company, some corporate miracle would take place within the next two months causing their value to increase by at least 50%.

Though we did manage to resist becoming unfriendlily polite for the next few minutes or so, it was when he said, ‘But you’ve got to act now, Barry!’ that it all started to crumble. But, strangely enough, what irritated us most was not so much the unlikely nature of what he was trying to get us to swallow as his dogged use of our Christian name. And when he added, ‘Barry, grab a pen and jot the name of this company down,’ our annoyance got the better of us, and we replied (it must have been the Frenchman in us) rather shirtily that we weren’t going to grab anything at all … for the moment, at least.

‘But, Barry,’ he insisted, ‘this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Barry, this is something you just can’t afford to miss out on!’

At this point even our Englishman began to get downright hostile, and we proceeded to inform him that if he didn’t want our conversation to become unfriendlily polite he would have to take ‘no’ for an answer. And it only took another, ‘But Barry…,’ for us to lose most of our self-control, and the little that remained of the polite gentleman our English alter usually tries to be only just managed a peremptory ‘goodbye,’ before we slammed the phone down.

On reflection, we would much rather have preferred being addressed by the occasional Mr Whittingham, rather than an overdose of Barry – or even, for that matter, by nothing at all. And between you and us, we’ve got to admit that a nice, deferential ‘sir’ from time to time wouldn’t have gone amiss. We must be a snob at heart.

 

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This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book, Barry’s Frenglish Folies – ‘a potpourri of humorous, serious, and humorously serious reflections on the French and English seen through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

Barry’s Frenglish Folies is available as a free Kindle download at :

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MZ39MUB

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Anglo-Saxon Instant Friendship

 

Inappropriate Familiarity?

One of those many things the Frenchie in us has difficulty in understanding about you Anglo-Saxons is the fact that, in contrast to the more formal French polite codes where the use of Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle to address strangers is de rigueur,  the importance you attach to instant friendship requires you to greet people you’ve never met in your life before in the most familiar of terms. During our holidays in England last year, for example, we walked into a small  shop. There we were welcomed by an assistant, young enough to be our grand-daughter, and whom we’d never clapped eyes on in our life before, with a cheery, ‘Hello, young man!’ So much did her greeting smack of inappropriate familiarity that our French and Englishman joined together in firmly pointing out that, since she would never have addressed a genuine young man in this way, what really prompted her greeting was, in fact, the very opposite to what she was attempting to imply – namely, that we were no longer a young man!

‘Young Man’ and ‘Old Boy’.

So how is it possible for the uninformed Frenchman not to fall into total confusion in a country where the quest for instant friendship obliges you to  call a man ‘a young man’ when he’s not a young man, but rarely call a man ‘a young man’ when he is a young man, and where it’s quite possible to address both an old man and a young boy as ‘young man’, and both a young man and an old man as ‘old boy?’ Isn’t it far more logical to be friendlily polite with people you know, and just politely polite with those you don’t?

Instant Friendship?

‘Hello, I’m John.’

Mind you, we probably got off lightly. For such is the importance you English attach to instant friendship that when you go into a shop you can be addressed by someone you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing in your life before with a disconcerting variety of familiar appellations which can only lead the foreign observer to surmise that you’re on the most intimate of terms. What’s more, this obsession with instant friendship obliges us to invite people we’ve never in our life mucked the pigs out with to address us by our Christian name, or even its diminutive, and to take the liberty of using theirs. Last Saturday evening, for instance, we were invited to a dinner party given by a couple of English friends.

‘I don’t think you know Jennifer and John,’ said our hostess by way of introduction to a couple we’d never in our life met before.

‘Oh, just call me Jennie,’ replied the lady, her cheeks creasing into the sweetest of smiles.

Limits?

This addiction to instantaneous friendship can, however, show its limits. This was illustrated one day last summer when we took ourself along to an agricultural show with an English friend and his wife. As we were walking past one stand a young woman rushed up to our friend’s wife.

‘How wonderful it is to see you again!’ she effused, seizing her in a smothering embrace. A brief conversation followed between them after which we continued on our way.

‘Yes, I met her at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago,’ my friend’s wife explained, ‘but I can’t for the life of me remember her name!’

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This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book Barry’s Frenglish Folies, ‘a potpourri of serious, humorous and seriously humorous reflections on the French and English viewed through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

You can download the free Kindle edition of Barry’s Frenglish Folies by following the link below :

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MZ39MUB

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