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Back in Italy, At Last

The day I landed back in Rome from my trip to the US, I found out that I was going to be leaving again…in a week..for N’Djamena, Chad.

After a whirlwind of travel in January and February and few weekends actually spent in Rome, the last thing I wanted was to travel some more.  But the opportunity to go to a new place and join an interesting WFP project was too good to pass up.  So 7 days later, and 7 vaccinations later, I boarded a plane for N’Djamena–my new home for the next two weeks.

At the head WFP Country Office in N’Djamena (the capital city), I was working with a colleague from my team in HQ to develop overall efficiency recommendations for our country-wide operations.  It was an intense two weeks of work that reminded me of my time back at BCG (working until 11pm and on the weekends), but our efforts yielded tangible cost savings initiatives.  And with those savings, WFP will be able to stretch its dollar further and feed more people.

Overall, working in Chad was quite an experience:  hot, sandy, and chaotic.  The temperature peaked at 110 degrees daily; gusts of wind kept things a bit cooler, but whipped sand into your eyes.  We didn’t have much time to explore, but we did get a chance to see a few N’Djamena’s “tourist sites.”  The highlight was a morning trip to the Central Market.  People milled about, hawking every possible item you could imagine.  The sites and smells of the butcher section–with men hacking away at carcases, flecks of flesh on their faces and blood mixing into mud with the sand, flies swarming on the red meat–are something I’ll never forget.

So after the trip to Chad, and a weekend stop in London to visit Rachel on my way back, I finally returned to Rome last week, ready to enjoy the sunny Spring weather.

And was I in for a treat.  This past weekend, a co-worker from WFP hosted myself and a few colleagues at her parents’ house in Arrone, Umbria–about an hour train ride outside of Rome.  I expected a pleasant day trip and a nice meal.  I was greeted with a five course lunch in a 900 year-old stone home in a medieval hilltop village overlooking the beautiful Umbrian countryside.  After the delicious meal (I ate so much that I didn’t have room for dinner…for me, that says something!), Chiara’s father took us to the church next door to climb the campanile (bell tower) and ring the bells.

Chiara’s mom was so impressed by my eating that she insisted that we all return another time.  I think she might regret that offer…

If this is what the rest of my time in Italy is going to be like, I think I’ll have a great next four months.

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View from the terrace garden of Chiara’s house, overlooking the town of Arrone

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The church next door to Chiara’s house. It has frescoes dating back to the 1400s.

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Up in the church’s campanile, ringing the bells

 

 

 

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April 1, 2014 · 4:28 pm

Lessons from Home

After a whirlwind three day trip back to Buffalo, I’m sitting in the Philadelphia airport, about to board a plane back to Rome.  Again, I’m leaving the country and resuming my adventure abroad, continuing another chapter of my life that finds me living far away from home.   North Carolina, Texas, and now Italy.

However much I’ve learned about life through living in other places and immersing myself in other cultures, a fundamental truth cuts through these experiences.  It’s a concept I first learned about during my first summer in South Africa in 2008, and one that’s been stuck in my mind ever since.  It’s called “Ubuntu.”

We become human—we achieve greatest fulfillment in life and become most alive—through our relationships with others.

It’s taken several trips abroad and almost 8 years away from home for me to only begin to come to terms with this truth and what it fully means for me in my life.

But I know someone for whom it came a bit easier, and with a little less travel.  Someone who, although she never knew it, embraced and embodied Ubuntu better than anyone else I’ve known:  my grandmother, Ann Kieffer.

Grandma was born in 1929 in her family home (a former inn dating back before the Civil War) in Bennington, NY, a rural town about 30 minutes outside of Buffalo.  She lived in this historic home in this quiet town for 84 years, marrying the love of her life, my grandpa, and baptizing their six daughters and one son at Sacred Heart Catholic Church right across the street.

Her life was deeply rooted in her family and in her community, and through her simple kindness and deep well of giving and self-sacrifice, she quietly and humbly touched the lives of everyone she knew—and even those she didn’t.

She cared for her father and her seven children and toiled away cooking and cleaning for a house of ten.  She made lunches for students from the school across the street when they forgot theirs.  She made extra meals for the neighbor next door.  She grew beautiful flowers and sold them at a roadside stand, brightening the lives of passersby.

More than this, grandma was gregarious, fun-loving, and the social butterfly of Bennington.  She could point out who lived in every house within 5 square miles, and a trip with her to the grocery store often meant an introduction to at least three of her friends.  With friends and with family, she loved to kick back and enjoy a whiskey sour, dance the cancan to “New York, New York,” and randomly pull a party popper in the middle of her kitchen.  You could always count on grandma to get the party started and put a smile on your face.

From her simple home at 1245 Clinton Street, she saw decades pass by:  The rise of political leaders and the undoing of regimes;  Global conflicts and times of peace;  Social unrest and the dawn of racial equality;  The rise of indoor plumbing and modern technology.

Through all of this, though, she never lost sight of what mattered most in her life: her relationships with others.  She didn’t need to venture far and wide to discover this key to happiness.

Grandma passed away peacefully on February 15, surrounded by family, in the house where she was born, the house she always defiantly declared that she would die in.  A truly remarkable, American life—full of kindness, love and joy—come full circle.

As I head back to Rome after saying goodbye to Grandma and celebrating her life with her family and friends, I do so with a heavy heart saddened by our loss but inspired by her example.

I do so, also, with a new perspective

Where ever we are—Rome, Cape Town, or Texas, or a quiet corner of Bennington, NY—there is so much to learn, right in front of us.  We don’t need to travel far from home; we just need to open our eyes and see, to open ourselves to others.

Thanks, Grandma, for this one last lesson.

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My journey to Acceptance

Like many expats living in Rome, I have a complicated relationship with this city.  For every evening meal of a sublime pizza or plate of pasta, there’s a harrowing commute to work the following morning full of train delays and bumper-to-bumper traffic.  For every stroll down a picturesque street in the historic center, there’s an equally jarring walk to the bus stop, on pockmarked sidewalks with pooling rainwater and dog droppings aimlessly scattered along the way.

Some days I love Rome, some days I hate Rome.  But at the end of the day, it’s the city I’m living in, and I’ve come to accept—or at least be resigned—to all of its joys and frustrations.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Over the course of my 5+ months here, I’ve gone through a number of phases, particularly in my relationship with the public transportation system.  The more I contemplate it, this mental journey perfectly mirrors a paradigm I first learned about in health class sophomore year of high school:  Dr. Kubler Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief.  When confronted with a particularly traumatic situation (e.g. terminal illness), Dr. Kubler Ross posited back in 1969, humans progress through five emotional stages:  Denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and—finally—acceptance.

It may be a bit melodramatic of a comparison, but allow me to explain.

Denial

Rome’ s history, food, and charming buildings and monuments are stunning to the uninitiated visitor.  When I first arrived, I was awed by the whole experience—the beauty and novelty of practically every building, every street, every church I beheld.  For the first time in my life, too, I was living in a major global city (sorry, Dallas!) and fully reliant on a public transit system complete with a network of buses, trains, subways and trams (think street cars).

Every day after work and on the weekends, I could explore the city, and for the most part, the transit system could take me where I wanted to go.  Back in August, the weather was sunny and beautiful and the sights were so historic and significant that, through my rose colored glasses, I didn’t pay much attention to the persistently delayed buses or ones that just never showed up.

Anger

As summer turned into fall, it all began to change.  The romance began to fade, and things started to get under my skin: The delayed bus that got me home too late to get to the grocery store before its 8pm closing time.  The cancelled Metro (because of a strike) that stranded me for an hour at 11pm on a Thursday night.  The pushy way that, at every stop, no one would wait for the passengers to get off before boarding themselves.  Call it impatience, call it unreasonable expectations, call it cultural insensitivity—I had about had it with the city.

Bargaining

Clever me, I thought I might have found a way around these troubles, at least on my way to work.  WFP is located in a business park along the train line to the airport, about a 20 minute drive from the historic center.  To get there from my apartment, I had been taking the Metro for three stops and then a WFP shuttle bus direct to our office.  In total, when things worked as they should, the whole process took about 40 minutes door to door  (15 minute walk to the Metro, 10 minute Metro ride, 15 minutes on the bus).

For some reason though, by mid-October, that 40 minutes turned into 60 or, on particularly bad days, 75.  The Metro part of it still worked great, but the shuttle bus to WFP was where it fell apart.  Out of nowhere, daily morning traffic on the route to WFP went from light to heavy.  The consistent congestion not only increased bus travel time but also compounded to make the shuttle buses arrive at the Metro stop erratically and often very late.

I was frustrated and had enough.  But lucky for me, I had another option:  the train.  About a 20 minute walk from my apartment was a station where I could board the regional train to Muratella, a short 8 minute walk to my office.  So with the 15 minute train ride, it would be roughly 45 minutes door to door.  I had found the solution, and car traffic couldn’t get in the way!

It worked great…for a few days.  Until the trains, which run every 15 minutes, were cancelled for no reason.  Then two trains worth of morning commuters crammed onto one train—if you were lucky to make it on board.  Or it would rain, and then all trains would be delayed half hour (yes, rain means that the trains don’t function properly).

I tried, and failed, to bargain my way out of a difficult morning commute.  Bus or train, I could not avoid pitfalls along the way.  The only way to guarantee an on time arrival at work would be to (gasp) leave earlier!

Depression

I’ll admit that this one’s a bit of a stretch…

Acceptance

Here I am, five months in, and I’ve learned, as best I can, to live like a Roman.  Sometimes the bus doesn’t run on time.  Sometimes, like this past Friday, the trains almost completely shut down because it rains.

A screen shot of the Trenitalia train status website from Friday morning.  Persistent rain sent the system haywire

A screen shot of the Trenitalia train status website from Friday morning. Persistent rain sent the system haywire

It’s frustrating, but I’ve learned to live with it.  Each morning, you will find me on the bus or the train (I still haven’t decided which one is faster…), shoving my way aboard like the other Romans, usually arriving to work later than planned.

If you can’t beat them, join them.

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Welcome back

December was a great month.  It started off with a long weekend in Paris with Rachel (it’s an amazingly beautiful city), followed by another weekend with her in Rome.  And on the 21st, after four months abroad, I boarded a plane back to the USA to celebrate Christmas with my family back home.  As excited as I was to return and enjoy American culture and cuisine, I left Rome feeling as if I was finally starting to feel comfortable—or at least less at unease—after a hectic and occasionally frustrating first months here.

Back in Buffalo for a week and half—back in a world of a language I understood, full of family and friends I missed while away, food and grocery stores that were familiar, people I could relate to, and routines and norms I could seamlessly slip into—a sinking feeling started to set in.  I missed home—familiarity—more than I realized, yet the comfort I felt in being there was only fleeting.  Each day brought a nagging voice in the back of my head that counted down the days left until it was over and I had to return to Rome.

Needless to say, when I left my house for the airport at 8am on New Year’s Day, I was less than thrilled.  After a full day of travel, I would be landing at Rome at 7am on Jan 2 and heading straight into work from the airport (in retrospect, a bad idea).  On top of that, I would be returning to a home that was anything but.  My friend Giacomo, whose apartment I had been living in since I arrived in Rome in August, returned right before Christmas—meaning that I had to move.  Luckily, I was able to find a new place before I left for the holiday, and the day I returned, I would be moving in.

All of this combined to produce a pretty rough landing back in Rome. 

Exhausted and missing home, my second day back, I carried my two suitcases full of clothes to my new apartment.  It was a Friday night, so after meeting up with some friends for dinner, I returned to the apartment and tried to lock the door.  But it wouldn’t close—the door tines were jammed, and the key was stuck.  I couldn’t close my door, nor could I get the key out of the outside lock.  Frantically, I called my new landlord, a fellow co-worker at WFP.  Although I was able to get a hold of him, he was still on vacation with his family…in Switzerland…in the Alps.  He told me that, since it was late on a Friday night, there was nothing he could do.  No locksmiths would be working.  The best we could hope for, he said, was that someone might be able to come out the following morning—if he could find a locksmith that worked the weekends.  As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the door to unjam.  It would have to wait until morning.

I spent my first night in my new apartment with a half-open front door and a key stuck in it.  To make matters worse, the toilet wouldn’t stop running, and the only way to make it stop was to turn off the apartment’s water, thereby turning off the hot water heater—the apartment’s heating source. 

No toilet, no heat, open front door.  Welcome back to Rome.

In the days that followed, the door and toilet were fixed, but I resolved to go back to the drawing board and try to find a new apartment.  In addition to the aforementioned mechanical issues, the apartment’s mattress is very uncomfortable, the upstairs neighbors very loud, and the internet connection too weak to be able to reliably use Skype (my connection to the outside world!).  It took me about a week (with several jetlag-induced sleepless nights it felt much longer) to finally find a new place in Testaccio, a neighborhood right on the edge of the city center.  I’ll be moving in at the end of the month.

As tough as the past weeks have been, things are looking up.  Despite the change of apartments—and the pending move to a new one—I’m trying to settle back into my old routines, get back into the swings of things, and pick up where I left off before I left for the holiday. 

Each day, things get better.

I still do think about how nice and comfortable things felt back at home, and when things get particularly frustrating, I find myself counting down the months until I return back to the US in the end of July. But there is too much to see, too many new things to experience—in Rome, in Italy, in Europe—for me to wish this time away. 

December was a great month, and January—the rest of it at least—will be too.

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The Roman, Catholic Church

Up until I left for college, my world largely centered around my local Catholic church in Hamburg, NY.  As a family—grandparents and cousins included—we attended mass 10:45am every Sunday morning.  I went to the parish elementary school for nine years—from kindergarten through 8th grade—and to this day, count my friends from there as some of my closest.  I participated in the Youth Group and volunteered my time as an altar server and lector.  I even volunteered at the annual party to honor the church’s volunteers.

In the many, many hours I spent on the church campus, I never really paid much attention to the sign outside.  It reads “Saints Peter and Paul R.C. Church.”

R.C.  Roman Catholic.

I always knew what that those letters stood for: more than just the title of our church, it was the name of my religion, the identity of my family for generations back.  Not Wesleyan.  Not Methodist.  Not Lutheran.  Roman Catholic.

For as long as I’ve brandished those words as a part of my consciousness and my identity, though, I am only just discovering the depth of what they truly mean.

When you look on a modern map of Rome, you can’t help but notice the patch of land carved out in 1929 for Vatican City, the independent state of the Catholic Church.  As it has been since its early years, the modern Roman Catholic Church is geographically and politically centered in Rome. 

But that’s only the beginning—the surface—of what fully makes the Church “Roman.”  After months of exploring the city and its history, let me explain.

As the first emperor of the newly formed Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus, claimed spiritual—in addition to temporal—ascendancy over his people, declaring himself high priest and Pontifex Maximus (a title that literally translates to “greatest bridge-maker”).  In the tradition of Augustus, subsequent emperors also assumed this spiritual power by adopting the pontifex maximus title.  The tradition continued until just after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312, when the revolutionary, subversive sect became the established religion of the Empire.

No longer on the down and out, the Church’s leadership structure became intertwined with the hierarchy of the Roman Empire itself.  But as the Roman Empire began to fall, the Church remained.  Within the vacuum caused by Rome’s fall, the Popes and the Catholic Church emerged as a source of stability, continuity and power, wielding authority over this world and the next. 

As much as they were spiritual leaders, the Popes were temporal leaders as well, carrying on the legacy of the Roman Empire.  For centuries—continuing to the unification of Italy in the late 1800s—the Popes reigned over the scants remains of the Roman empire through the Papal states.  They waged war, built monuments, churches and palaces across the city, and like the former emperors, proudly adopted the title of pontifex maximus.

When you walk around the city of Rome today, or tour the formal Vatican residences as part of the Vatican Museums, or stand in one of the cavernous Papal Basilicas, you see the living proof of this continuity.  Blazoning these beautiful buildings, monuments, and even Egyptian obelisks (seized by the Romans during the conquest of Egypt) are placards announcing the good works of each pope, followed by the title “Pont Max.”  On the front of St Peter’s Basilica, right above the window where the new popes are announced: Paulus V Pont. Max.  On the Coliseum:  Pius IX Pont. Max.  On the Trevi Fountain: Clemens XII Pont. Max.  

This continuity is more than titular.  It speaks to the way the popes saw themselves, the way the Church as an institution—spiritual and political—shaped the city in a way any traditional government or bureaucracy would, in a way that carried on the legacy of the Roman civilization, in the very heart where Roman civilization stood.

Roman Catholic:  not just “in Rome,” but “of Rome.”  More like Roman, Catholic.

The Roman Empire may have fallen, but centuries later, to some extent, millions of Roman Catholics across the world—myself, my family—carry on in the shadow of its legacy.

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Che Bello Part Due

This past Saturday morning, I mustered up the courage to try it all over again.  My hair was getting long, and it was time for another cut.  As much as I loved my previous hair cut experience—the grandmas in curlers, the ridiculous book of hair cut choices, the mid-cut gossip and cappuccino session, the cheek and chin grabbing—I figured it was time for some place a bit more….traditional.  So I headed off in search of a true barbershop.

Luckily, I found just the place down the street from my apartment.  This particularly barbershop falls along my daily route to the train station, so I had been eyeing it for some time now.   It has big glass windows overlooking the street, a nice dark-toned interior, and most importantly, from what I’ve seen from walking by, a mostly male clientele.

When I entered the shop, I was greeted by the barber’s wife.  She promptly showed me to a chair, and minutes later, her husband came over.

“What do you want?” he asked.

With my slowly progressing Italian, I replied, “I’m American and don’t speak much Italian.  But I would like a normal cut, not too short.”  He nodded in comprehension.

The cut progressed without a glitch (and no, he didn’t take any breaks in the middle).  He asked me the usual questions:  Where are you from?  Why are you here?  Are you a student?

When I mentioned that I was from New York, he said proudly, “You just elected an Italian mayor—de Blasio.”

“Si, si,” I answered, confused for a moment.  Everyone just assumes I’m from New York City, so instead of correcting them I just play along.

“But he doesn’t speak Italian,” the barber cautioned.  “And his family came over to the US many years ago.  I don’t think he’s a real Italian.”  A man in a nearby chair waiting for a cut nodded in agreement.  “No he’s not,” the bystander opined.

Tough crowd.

Minutes later, the barber finished up, brush off my neck, combed my hair, and held up a mirror so that I could inspect.  Probably the best cut I’ve gotten in quite some time.  I think I’ll be a regular.

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Update 11/15:  According to this story in today’s New York Times, de Blasio does speak Italian.  The barber was wrong, and apparently many Italians don’t share his dismissive attitude toward the mayor-elect.  Interesting article about de Blasio’s ties to Italy:   http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/nyregion/his-roots-in-italy-de-blasio-now-has-fans-there.html?hp&_r=0

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A different kind of classroom

I have a confession to make.  I may have majored in history in college, but there’s a gaping hole in my overall historical knowledge:  I really don’t know much about the continent where I am living.

It all starts back in high school.  Instead of the usual history curriculum of Global history freshman year and European history sophomore year, I instead took a 2 year course of AP World History that spanned freshman and sophomore year.  As great of an experience as that was,  AP World History purposefully de-emphasizes European and American history to focus on broader historical trends and themes across the East and West.   Due to scheduling conflicts my senior year, I wasn’t able to make up for this gap by taking AP European History.

At Duke, I  had a dual concentrated on South African and US history, but as part of the history major’s requirements, I took two classes that touched on the history of Europe:  Empires in Historical Perspective and Magic, Religion, and Science since 1400.  Both classes were fascinating, but they were rather narrowly focused, and neither provided the general European historical overview that I desperately needed.

Fast forward a few years, and that historical gap remains.  But not for long, hopefully.

One of my motivating factors for moving to Europe for the year was to bulk up on my understanding of its complicated and rich history.  And what better place to start than in Rome?

In my first few months here, I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunity to learn up close and in person, touring some of Rome’s best monuments and museums and its endless number of churches.  I’ve learned about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, its artistic and political continuity with the Catholic Church, the dramatic rebirth of Rome during the late Renaissance and Baroque period, and its redesign under the Fascist hand of Mussolini.

In London a few weeks back, I toured the treasures of the British Museum—the Rosetta stone, the friezes from the Acropolis in Athens, ancient Greek urns—and dug into the history of the British monarchy at the National Portrait Gallery.

This past weekend, Rachel and I took a trip to Florence—the heart of the Renaissance—and visited the Uffizi gallery—arguably the greatest collection of Renaissance art in the world.  Now was my chance to see these treasured works of art face-to-face and encounter the artistic revolution that took the world by storm.

The Uffizi gallery is more or less organized chronologically, an advantageous layout for a relative newcomer to the art of this period, as it allows you to see the slow yet dramatic transformation of art from (in my unbiased opinion) dull, one-dimensional pieces to vibrant, realistic expressions of emotion and feeling.

The tour begins with a room of “Madonna and Child” altar paintings—the dominant pre-Renaissance artistic motif.  I can’t tell you how many of these types of paintings I’ve seen in the past few months alone.  Most of them are dull works of art, designed mostly for devotional purposes, and consequently, there is very little concern for realistic expression of the human form.  Mary and Jesus are often distorted in proportion, and the “baby” Jesus often has man-like facial features.

Slowly, but surely, things began to change, and as Europe moved closer to the Renaissance, the typical Madonna and Child (thankfully!) took on an different form.

In Santa Trinita Measta by Cimbue, painted at the end of the 13th century, we begin to see hints of this transformation.  Cimabue creates some depth to the picture, and his depictions of Mary and Jesus are increasingly realistic.  But Mary herself is covered by draping fabric, and there is no definition of the human body beneath.

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Santa Trinita Maestà by Cimabue, from 1280-1290

The next generation of painters—most notably Giotto—took this image to the next level.  In his version, Madonna Enthroned,  there is depth, perspective, emotion, and—lo and behold—Mary actually has a body!  Here we see an increasing focus on the human being, but notably, this is still within the confines of religious devotion and the existing paradigms of the Catholic visual tradition; the subjects are still Madonna and Child.

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Madonna Enthroned by Giotto, 1310

But by the next century, the revolution of the Renaissance fully took hold, and change accelerated at a dramatic pace.  Just 170 years after Giotto’s Madonna Enthroned, Boticelli painted his famous work Primavera.  A large canvas dramatically displayed on a long wall in the Uffizi, Primavera fully captures the Renaissance spirit and demonstrates just how much the world had changed.  Gone were a faithful devotion to religious icons and the strict parameters of the old order.  In were realism, depth, color, emotion, movement, and a nod to the mythological past of ancient Greece.

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Primavera by Boticelli, 1482

Standing in front of Primavera, it’s hard not to be overcome by the beauty of the image and entranced by the ethereal scene.  You fully appreciate just how far art had come, and for a moment, are filled with the wonder and awe that Boticelli’s own contemporaries must have felt when gazing at the canvas for the first time:  a sense that something great is on the horizon, that humanity had turned a corner, that after a long period of darkness, truth and beauty and reason would prevail.  You see the Renaissance, but you also feel the Renaissance.  It’s pretty special.

So here I am, years removed from high school and a few years after college.  A non-traditional student continuing my historical journey, in a non-traditional environment.  But I have to say, these museums and galleries, ruins and monuments—real world experiences and encounters—make the best kind of classrooms there are.

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November 5, 2013 · 6:55 am