Tag Archives: France

El Camino de Santiago

Have you ever seen The Way? It’s a small movie, but with a large heart, telling the fictional story of a father who unexpectedly walks the renowned Camino de Santiago – The Way of Saint James – to honour his dead son.

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And I’ve also just watched the fascinating Walking the CaminoSix Ways to Santiago, a more recent documentary film focusing on 6 very different people and their own motivation for walking the Camino.

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From the film’s website:

Officially, the Camino is any route that starts in Europe and ends in Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city of Galicia in north-western Spain. It is named after Santo Iago – Saint James – one of the 12 apostles. According to legend, his body was found in a boat that washed up on the northern coast of Spain thousands of years ago.

His remains were transported inland and buried under what is now the cathedral in Santiago. His bones were rediscovered in the 9th century, when a hermit saw a field of stars that led him to the ancient, forgotten tomb.

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Since then, hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino every year, most as a personal pilgrimage. The classic route is 500 miles/800 km from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, across the Pyrenees into Navarra, through La Rioja and then heading west across the flatlands of Castilla y Leon before the final approach through verdant, gently undulating Galicia.

Both films and reality tell of the personal journeys each pilgrim makes, and the people you meet along the way. It is said to be a life-changing experience. You stay in albergues, special pilgrim hostels run by volunteers – hospitaleros – pilgrim themselves, whose love for the Camino has inspired them to come back and help others along the way.

At recent travel shows in London I chatted to the lovely people promoting Camino Ways, a commercial business promoting the many different ways to experience the Camino now.

I have been drawn to attempt it myself since seeing The Way. But I have shied away from the classic route…..too far, too hard and too many people! But there are some appealing alternatives, all ending in Santiago, that might be a good way to share some of the Camino emotions, if not the full self-examining 500 mile route.

Perhaps this is the year to walk the Caminho da Costa, the Portuguese Coastal Way. Starting in Porto, you cover 265 km of northern Portugal before crossing by ferry to A Guarda, in Galicia, and leaving the coast at Vigo to head towards Santiago.

I wonder how pale this imitation might be, or whether it will still be powerful enough to stir the soul. I am not religious, but perhaps it will nevertheless be a small spiritual awakening, as well as a physically demanding and fulfilling walk.

And who knows what else it might inspire me to do after arriving at the cathedral square, with all those other pilgrims……

Image result for santiago de compostela cathedral

Book review – All Quiet on the Western Front

I like the adage less is more.

It’s usually true.

Translated from the original German novel Im Westen nichts Neues, Erich Maria Remarque distills all the horror of war into just 200 pages, in his remarkable  All Quiet on the Western Front.

Paul Bäumer and his school classmates are barely 18 when they’re persuaded by their teacher to fight for Germany in The Great War.

With spare language, Remarque describes the daily routine of their life on the front in France.

In some vivid set-pieces, Paul and his infantry company endure abject extremes: stabbing to death a French soldier who falls into Bäumer’s shell-hole; an infestation of rats in the trenches; a deadly gas attack; daily bombardments from heavy artillery.

But there are also some occasions of black humour that epitomise the camaraderie of those who know death is almost certain: a feast of piglets and white sauce, even as Bäumer and best friend Kat are under heavy fire; swimming naked across a river to meet some French girls, for fear of getting their uniforms wet; stealing a goose to wring its neck and provide a memorable meal for the starving soldiers.

But one by one, his friends fall. To shrapnel wounds. To direct mortar hits. To dysentery. Bleeding to death in no-mans’ land. Drowning in mud. Shot for desertion.

But amongst all this futllity and desolation, he still recognises the insatiable human lust for life.

I am very calm. Let the months come, and the years, they’ll take nothing more from me, they can take nothing more from me. I am so alone and devoid of of any hope that I can confront them without fear. Life, which carried me through these years, is still there in my hands and in my eyes. Whether or not I have mastered it, I do not know. But as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not.

All this in 200 pages.

Weniger ist mehr.

Movie review – Disorder

Do you prefer certainty, or the unknown?

The Odeon’s admirable Screen Unseen concept is by definition a surprise. Although they do give some clues on Facebook and lots of clever cinephiles try to anticipate what the next Unseen movie might be.

So I toddled off to last night’s outing, fully expecting to see Hands of Stone, the story of boxer Roberto Duran, starring Robert de Niro as his legendary trainer, Ray Arcel.

The appearance of Disorder on the Censor’s certificate caused a ripple of unease amongst the audience, and within minutes quite a few had vacated their seats and were heading for the neon-lit exit door. Disappointed boxing fans, or perhaps sitting through a sub-titled French film on a cold Monday night was just too much effort?

Matthias Schoenaerts is Vincent, a muscular French army soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not knowing if he’ll be assigned to another mission, he’s persuaded to sign up for a private security job, a lavish party at the opulent estate of a shady Lebanese businessman.

For the first hour, the film is a taut thriller played out largely in Vincent’s head. Not helped by a cocktail of drugs, his mind and hearing are still on the battlefields, and he’s suffering from a paranoia that distorts his judgement. The soundtrack perfectly complements this mental mayhem.

Thereafter, it morphs into a fairly pedestrian – and confusing – home-invasion thriller.  Vincent is asked to stay on after the party, to look after the businessman’s wife – Diane Kruger as Jessie, looking like a dead ringer for Grace Kelly – and son Ali.

Vincent suspects that the Lebanese husband is an arms dealer who also has dubious links with the recently elected French Interior Minister. His suspicions are confirmed when the husband is arrested on a trip to Switzerland, the police protection outside the estate disappears, and masked men invade the house.

The developing relationship between Vincent and Jessie is the glue that binds the plot together, but the movie is a whole doesn’t quite work. In my humble, non-cinephile opinion.

But Matthias Schoenaerts is an undoubted star, and carries the film as far as it can go. He was outstanding as one of Bathsheba Everdene’s suitors in the recent version of Far from the Madding Crowd,  played a small but important part in The Danish Girl, and is undoubtedly destined for full-blown Hollywood stardom. Another famous Belgian for that favourite quiz question?

Disorder is being called Maryland for English-speaking audiences, and is released in the UK on 25th March.

I wonder what Hands of Stone will be like?

Courchevel ski trip

Just back from our annual pilgrimage to the ski slopes of Europe. To Courchevel in the French Alps this time, part of the wider classic Trois Vallées ski domain.

I say annual, but Gill and I did sneak in a cheeky additional week on the pistes this year, at Champoluc in Italy with old friends Nigel & Julie Cripps.

Courchevel was with our usual group of alpinistes, whose ageing process I wrote wistfully about after the St Anton expedition a year ago. Sadly prophetic, the Gang of Eight was reduced through poor health to the Team of Six for this year’s outing.

Not wanting to betray the gang’s ethos – just us being pampered in a catered chalet, with a list of priorities longer than an EU summit’s – we stayed at Robin & Maggie’s own apartment in Courchevel. My brother Paul and sister-in-law Carol completed the reduced team.

The delightful village of Courchevel Le Praz sits at 1300 metres, lower than the bling-tastic resorts of Courchevel 1650 and 1850, but more of a living, breathing local community. And you don’t have to speak Russian.

Thanks to intense pre-tour negotiations, we managed to agree an interesting array of catering solutions: each couple would conjure up a feast one night; we would celebrate both Gill’s birthday (first night) and Robin’s (last night) at local restaurants; we would trial a catered meal, delivered to and eaten in the apartment; and for the remaining night, we might buy a ready-prepared meal from the excellent boucherie in the village.

It all worked so well that perhaps we should copyright and market the concept to self-catering chalets throughout the world. Mix & Match Catering Solutions? Smorgasbord Ski Meals? Courchevel Catering Concepts?

We splashed out on the celebratory meals, at Le Bistrot du Praz for Gill’s birthday and at the Michelin starred Azimut for Robin’s. In the end, we had a decadently long and late lunch – rather than dinner – at Azimut, leaving the slopes early in anticipation of deteriorating conditions and fading light.

This was sadly the story of our skiing week….clouds, limited visibility, and constantly changing conditions, with occasional bursts of brilliant sunshine and huge dumps of fresh powdery snow. Essentially as varied as the catering package.

Still, as Gill always says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Which nearly happened to Robin one day. Dying, rather than adding muscle to his slight frame.

After impressing us for days with his Zen-like affinity with Courchevel’s vast network of pistes and lifts, guiding us safely down the mountain in clouds as thick as Gérard Depardieu’s accent, towards the end of the week he promptly disappeared from amongst us.

In limited visibility and in the teeth of an icy blizzard, we all headed down the well-known blue track to the appointed meeting place, right of a large rock.

I passed Robin and stopped at the rock. The others arrived. Robin didn’t. We waited 10 minutes. We considered our options. We waited some more.

Half an hour later, we were finally reunited, further down the mountain in Courchevel 1850.

Robin had contrived to ski away from the marked track, falling head-first into deep snow and losing his skis. And if you’ve ever fallen in fresh powder, you’ll know that finding a ski is like looking for a cup of coffee costing less than €6 in the 3 Valleys.

He found them. He lived. He’s another year older, if not wiser.

In imperfect conditions, we still had a great week. But hopefully next year, the Gang of Eight will be reunited.

Movie review – Before Sunset

Who said romance is dead?

For Valentines Day, as trashily commercialised as it may be, I bought Gill a champagne and romantic movie experience. With me. And in the intimate small private screening room at the Courthouse Hotel in Soho, rather than at a popcorn-filled, trailer-laden Odeon multiplex.

And the movie?

A few years ago, we’d been the only people in a late night viewing of Before Midnight at a cinema in beautiful Bruges.  That was the third – and final – instalment of the well-regarded trilogy from Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

The three films span 18 years, both in terms of movie release dates and also the lives of the protagonists, Céline and Jesse.

This time we were seeing Before Sunset, the middle instalment. So we’re working our way backwards…..

Nine years earlier, in Before Sunrise, young American tourist Jesse and ideological French beauty Céline had bumped into each other on a train in Europe.

 

Through conversation as much as the obvious physical attraction, they connect. And spend a magical day and night in Vienna together.

But then they go their separate ways.

Before Sunset takes place in Paris, 9 years later. Jesse has written a successful book, and is talking to journalists in the historic Shakespeare & Company bookshop about how auto-biographical the love story is.

Céline appears, and for the next hour – again in real-time – they stroll through Paris, reminiscing about that romantic first meeting, and peeling away the layers of what’s happened in their lives since.

Céline explains why she didn’t show up for a planned second meeting in Vienna exactly 6 months later. Jesse admits he flew over from the US to honour the commitment.

As the camera follows them through the city, we eavesdrop on the intimacy of their witty, sensitive conversation and – like them – wonder what might have been. Jesse is now married and a father, Céline a passionate environmentalist and in a relationship of her own.

But is either of them really happy?

Beautifully shot, intelligently acted and smartly scripted, this is cinema at its finest. And most romantic.

Europe – IN or OUT?

I love Europe.

In the early 1960s, when I was just 5 or 6 and England still hadn’t won the World Cup, my pioneering parents bought a travelette (a collapsible caravan contraption). The neighbours in suburban West Wickham waved us off, and we drove all the way down to the Costa Brava, spending two weeks on the beach of a blissfully unspoiled and still quintessentially Spanish fishing village.

I honed my nascent German language skills – and snogged Bridget Heap from Clarendon House – in Koblenz, on exchanges with Detlef and his family in the 1970s.

More recently, Gill and I have whizzed all over France on Eurostar

We have a continuing addiction to all things Italian, and have just returned from skiing in bellissimo Champoluc.

In April, we’ll be going to Greece for the first time, visiting Thessaloniki to write an article for the lovely folks at Silver Travel Advisor, then moving on to historic Mount Olympus and Halkidiki.

I embrace everything about Europe…its people, languages, history, food, wine.

Everything.

Except the bloated, bureaucratic European project that is the EU. It’s teetering on the precipice of failure, and I’m leaning heavily towards the exit door.

I’m not racist. I’m not xenophobic. And I’m not rooted in the past. But I can’t believe the status quo is sustainable.

When we signed up for the Common European Market in 1973 – ratified in a 1975 referendum – could our worst fears have anticipated the reality of 2016?

  • an annual EU budget of close to €150 billion
  • more than 750 Members of the European Parliament
  • EU auditors reported that the bureaucrats had misspent €7 billion of the 2013 budgetThe auditors have refused to sign off the accounts for 20 years in a row
  • 2-speed economies of the greatly enlarged EU over protracted periods, and yet no single country being able to resort to interest rate changes to stimulate or slow down its own economy (thank goodness we stayed out of the single currency and retain the £)
  • a plethora of unwanted and stifling legislation handed down from Brussels
  • untrammelled immigration, from other EU countries and – through assimilation over time – well beyond Europe

I may sound like a Daily Telegraph reader, or – worse – a UKIP voter, but it feels like we have lost control, to differing degrees, of our sovereignty, our legislation and our borders.

And I don’t buy the IN camp’s scaremongering that our economy will collapse if we decide to exit. Yes, there will be obviously some significant adjustments required, and there may well be a reduction in GDP and a threat to some jobs. But that impact will hopefully be temporary, until we rediscover old allies, sign up new trade relationships with vibrant emerging markets, and embrace our renewed independence,

But we will regain control of our own British future for the long term.

I love Europe. But I love its separate, beautiful, independent cultures rather than its homogeneous, bureaucratic mass.

I’m walking inexorably towards the OUT door. Possibly regardless of any outwardly face-saving deal Mr Cameron might try to bring back ahead of the referendum, to persuade us to stay IN, as I fear it won’t represent substantive change.

And if we vote to leave, it might just signal the beginning of the end of the grand federal Europe project.

Nobody is safe now

A few hours ago, a knife-wielding man injured a few people at Leytonstone tube station. He yelled “this is for Syria” as he slashed his innocent victims. Police are treating it as a terrorist incident.

On Wednesday last week, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot dead 14 people and left another 21 injured in San Bernardino, California.

Their victims were attending a holiday party of social services organisation The Inland Regional Center.

The FBI found an arsenal of weapons at the couple’s apartment, otherwise left as though they had just popped out to do the shopping.

They leave behind their 6 month old daughter, dropped off with Tashfeen’s mother before they went to the party.

On Friday 13th November, 130 people were killed in a series of meticulously planned attacks on soft targets in Paris…..a music venue, bars and restaurants. A football match at the Stade de France was also targeted.

But something else in the last few days has appalled me even more than all these ISIS-inspired attacks around the world.

Remember the innocence of our youth, playing hide-and-seek on the local common, or around the house?

ISIS have just released their latest propaganda video. It shows boys, as young as 8 years old, being given loaded guns with which to hunt down captured Syrian soldiers – “spies” – in a ruined castle. The children execute the bound and defenceless men.

The pièce de résistance, however, is the 6th boy beheading his victim.

It’s been reported that this updated version of hide-and-seek, played out like a computer video game, was a reward for the boys winning a competition.

The message is clear. You can bomb our training bases in the Syrian desert. You can attack us on the ground. You might in time return Syria to some kind of uneasy peace.

But around the world, our supporters will deliver our message wherever and whenever you least expect it.

It might be meticulously planned, It might be random and spontaneous. But it will be deadly. And we have already trained the next generation to continue the fight.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that this clash of ideologies is an insoluble conflict.

 

 

 

Paris – a city in mourning, but not in fear

Below is an article I have just had published on Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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We have just got back from a weekend in Paris.

We arrived 2 weeks after 130 people were killed in a series of devastating, barbarous attacks by Islamic State murder squads, and the day after President Hollande led the country in a moving tribute on a day of national remembrance for the victims.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

The security in Paris was heightened on my last visit there in March, just 2 months after the Charlie Hebdo murders. That was clearly targeted at the satirical magazine that had so overtly lampooned the Muslim religion. The recent 13th November attacks assaulted global sensibilities, however, as the victims were intentionally innocent people in a liberal western democracy enjoying a sporting, musical and culinary Friday night out in one of the world’s most vibrant, multicultural and liberated cities.

Our trip was booked a few weeks ago, to benefit from a free Eurostar ticket (thanks to a 5 hour wait at St Pancras after a “jumper” at Ashford on a previous trip). And also to enjoy a free night at the wonderful Great Northern Hotel, smack bang next to St Pancras & Kings Cross stations, after Gill experienced her own Poseidon Adventure in the shower, en route to Marseille in June (it’s a long story…….).

We could easily have cancelled this trip. Belgium remains in lock down, and France is still hunting those connected to the recent murderous attacks, who didn’t die for their violent cause or who weren’t subsequently captured.

But we still wanted to go, for all those reasons that appear trite on the page: to show support for our French neighbours; to uphold the principles of freedom v the bullet; to carry on normal life in the face of terrorist atrocities.

Paris seemed quiet on Saturday. The Eurostar train was only half full and it’s rumoured hotel bookings are down on usual levels by as much as 40%.

But we enjoyed an entertaining and insightful guided walk around Montmartre, with Pierre from the excellent Culturefish Tours, and a cosmopolitan group comprising Swedes, other Brits, Americans and a young Chinese girl living and working in San Francisco.

We learned that the hilltop community was outside the city until 1860, populated at that time largely by winemakers and by miners, excavating gypsum from deep mines under the “butte”. This output was used to make plaster for the city walls….et voila, plaster of Paris!

We strolled in the footsteps of Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso and Renoir, some of the many artists who populated bohemian Montmartre during the “belle epoque” period – from the late 19th century to the early 20th – after it was embraced as another city arondissement.

We heard the bewitching story of The Man Who Walked Through Walls, now trapped in a moving sculpture.

Statue of The Man Who Walked Through Walls

And we saw where Dalida – the exotic singer and dancer of Egyptian and Italian – lived, and whose many lovers all seemed to commit suicide, just as she eventually did. And on a lighter note, we saw the cafe and greengrocer’s shop made famous by Audrey Tautou in the joyously Parisian movie “Amelie”.

Amélie (2001) Poster

We enjoyed dinner at a typically French bistro, Le Louis on rue Coquilliere in the 2nd arrondissement. We luxuriated in a cheese-based Sunday brunch at l’Affineur Affine, tucked away on a quiet neighbourhood street in the 9th, and we gorged on cheap Thai street food at Monthai in the 3rd.

We walked miles, as you always must in Paris. We felt safe.

But on Sunday night and throughout Monday, we saw lengthy convoys of armed police, and heard sirens wailing, and helicopter rotors droning in the Parisian skies. The world’s leaders had arrived for the climate conference, and the city felt under siege again.

We struggled to keep our emotions in check as we read the hundreds of tributes draped around the statue in the Place de la Republique, and then saw those in front of the Bataclan night club, scene of the most murderous attack.

We returned on Eurostar, humbled but glad that we had spent the weekend in Paris, a city in mourning but not in fear.

Tearful tricolour graphic

 

Bombs and terrorism

On Saturday 24th April, 1993, I was on holiday back in Bermuda. That day the office of the Japanese company I was working for, high up the tower of 99 Bishopsgate in the heart of London’s business community, was destroyed by an IRA bomb.

An IRA bomb destroyed the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City of London.

Hidden in a stolen tipper truck parked by the HSBC building, the device – a huge and deadly concoction of fertiliser and diesel – killed 1 person, injured 44 and caused £350 million of damage.

I never worked in the building again.

The long-running mainland UK bombing campaign by the IRA eventually came to a halt, after decades of murder and devastation, and thanks to tortuous political negotiations.

On Wednesday 6th July, 2005, I stood in Trafalgar Square with colleague David Kuo and hundreds of other Londoners awaiting an announcement from the IOC, in Singapore, about the venue for the 2012 Olympics.

Paris was hot favourite. London won. I have never known such a perfect, instantaneous outpouring of elation as on that hopeful summer lunchtime.

The following day, Thursday 7th July – known as 7/7 in a poignant homage to New York’s 9/11 of 4 years earlier- Islamist extremists  detonated 3 separate backpack bombs in quick succession on the London Underground, Soon after, a 4th ripped apart an iconic red double-decker bus, in Tavistock Square.

52 people died and more than 700 were injured.

On Wednesday 7th January, 2015, two Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist terrorists entered the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 11 and injuring 11 others.

In related attacks across the city, a further 5 were killed and another 11 wounded.

On Friday 13th November, 2015, ISIS-inspired and Syrian-planned extremists carried out a series of deadly attacks on bars. restaurants a music venue and the Stade de France sports stadium in the heart of Paris.

At the moment, 129 people have died and 350 have been injured.

I was in Paris earlier this year.  Security was visibly high, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and suspicious drones had been seen in the clear blue skies of a Parisian spring.

Gill and I are going back to Paris in 11 days time. We’ll be staying near to the site of some of the restaurant attacks last Friday.

We could cancel but I believe we should still go. To carry on life as normal, as France is defiantly doing today, and because the risk of something happening to you exists every day, wherever you might be.

The politicians will slowly work towards a potential solution for the current Syrian crisis, and the ISIS threat. But this is much more complex than the Irish terror we faced for so many years, and could take a generation to resolve.

In the meantime, life MUST go on. As it always does.

Theatre review – Carmen

Carmen – review for Essential Surrey website

Andrew Morris enjoys a timeless story of Latin passion, love and tragedy, at G Live in Guildford

Well, that was a multinational introduction to opera.

Carmen is a classic opera, with something of a complicated bloodline. The score and text were written by the Frenchman Georges Bizet in the 1870s, adapted from a novel by Prosper Merimee and a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. This performance was produced and directed by Ellen Kent, a prolific English purveyor of opera and ballet, while the cast hailed mainly from Eastern Europe, and the Orchestra was from Moldova.

The story takes place in Spain, a timeless story of passion, love and tragedy that unfolds in Seville and its wild surrounding mountains.

The honest and naive corporal Don José is besotted when fiery, beautiful Gypsy Carmen shakes her flouncy Flamenco dress in his direction. He has soon deserted both the army and his childhood sweetheart Micaela, in the belief that his and Carmen’s passionate attraction will endure. Unfortunately for poor Don José, a life of crime hidden in the mountains doesn’t sit as well with him as does the wayward Carmen, and he soon finds himself torn between blind devotion and his duties.

Carmen, on the other hand, is soon distracted by the glamorous toreador Escamillo, and they fall in love, with Carmen taunting the hapless Don José. Well, everyone knows Carmen’s affairs only last 6 months.

With that, the tragic die is cast, and the inevitable, fatal dénouement takes place outside the bullfighting arena back in Seville.

Bizet’s musical score is rightly acclaimed for its melody, atmosphere and orchestration. This production captured its ability to represent the differing emotions of the protagonists. We’re introduced to the exotic, free-flying Carmen in one of opera’s most famous arias, Habanera (officially titled l’amour est un oiseau rebelle – love is a rebellious bird), and when Escamillo shows up with his flashy entourage in Act 2 you can’t help but hum along with the rousing Toreador aria.

The actors suit their roles as well as the music. Liza Kadelnik was born to be independent-spirited, buxom flame-haired Carmen, while Maria Tonina perfectly captured the sweet nature of Micaela, and Iurie Gisca as Escamillo strutted around in his cape as though he had already slain 1,000 bulls. Ruslan Zinevych was a timid Don José, and it was no surprise when Carmen moved on to the dashing bullfighter.

As thrilling as the story and music remained, however, this production felt strangely disjointed.

The English translation, scrolling through on a panel high above the stage, was a boon for Carmen virgins. Unfortunately, it conveyed dialogue and speeches that were more stilted than flowing and passionate, and perhaps also a little condensed from the original French words.

The evening was spread over 3 ¼ hours, with one intermission after Act 1 and another just before the final Act 4. Some of the transitions between scenes were a little clunky, and I’m afraid the time taken to change the set between the middle two Acts dragged on so long that the audience could be heard asking if the cast had gone home.

Despite these weaknesses, it was still an enjoyable evening. Merci, Monsieur Bizet. Grazias, Carmen. Thanks, Ms Kent.