Reunited

Day 272 (7th of December 2016) – Berlin, Germany

It was 11:30am when my Air France flight from Paris finally landed in the German capital. The flight passed over some stunning cities in the dark winter morning. Sorry for the picture quality.

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I was exhausted, and understandably. A boys’ trip isn’t exactly slow-paced, and further, I’d just been stuck on some long-haul flights, the longest being 13.5 hours from Guangzhou to Paris. But hey, I was here.

I struggled through Berlin’s initially confusing ticketing system to catch the TXL bus and U-Bahn to my hostel for the evening.

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Aimee and I initially planned to begin our European trip tomorrow. Due to timing and flight issues, I realised that I would be arriving the day before we had booked our first lot of accommodation. As a result, I booked myself a night in an inner-city hostel.

I could only summon the energy to take a few photos of some of the interesting sights on the way to the hostel.

After arriving the hostel, I was made to wait another half an hour until I could check in.

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I used my brief break at the hostel to organise Aimee and I’s plans for the coming few days using the advice of the hostel staff. But I’ll be honest, I couldn’t wait for Aimee. I had to start seeing things on my own. I decided that I’d bring her back to whatever was worth seeing and begin exploring the city by myself. Luckily, the hostel was located just across from a highly recommended kebab joint. Being a heavily multicultural city, these sorts of cuisines thrive in Berlin.

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Also around the hostel is Rosa-Luxembourg-Platz, just next to Alexanderplatz. This centre of East Berlin, often referred to by Berliners as simply “Alex”, was a cattle market in the Middle Ages, a military parade square and an exercise ground for nearby barracks until the mid 19th century and today Berlin’s most visited public square.

Here, I was able to buy Aimee and I data-heavy SIM cards for all of Europe and go searching for some new glasses in the surrounding streets. It wasn’t long before I found my new look – transparent.

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I wasn’t the only one looking sexy this evening. So was Alexanderplatz.

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This square is also the home to one of Berlin’s largest and best known Christmas Markets.

I realised that I would be taking Aimee back here and quickly moved away so that I could experience it properly for the first time with her.

Instead, I ducked through the supermarket on the way back to the hostel to get a few things I needed.

It was pitch dark and only just past 4pm. I figured that I would go to the hostel bar and exploit my free drink voucher for an OJ. It was to my surprise that the bartender replied in a perfectly curated Aussie bogan accent.

“Where are you from mate?” I asked.

“Gerringong, south of Sydney,” he replied, clearly with a lot of pride.

It turned out that the Jesuit Residence in Gerringong was just a street away from where he lived. Who would’ve thought that on the first day in Berlin you’d find such a connection.

I hadn’t realised the time and fell into a deep sleep, only cementing my jet lag.

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Day 273 (8th of December 2016) – Berlin, Germany

I woke up bright and early (well, it wasn’t bright yet) for a quick morning tutoring session before a hostel breakfast. Now, THIS is what you call a hostel breakfast.

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And best of all, I could eat it on a balcony with this view.

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As the sun tucked behind some of the low-lying clouds, the extent of the city became easier to see.

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It was an exciting start to an exciting day. The biggest event of the day was that Aimee would be arriving at 11:35am from Doha.

I jumped on a tram and bus to get to Tegel Airport with good time.

I hadn’t seen Aim since July, and after spending the majority of the year away from her it was a particularly exciting reuniting. I figured that it was worthy of some sort of special welcome, but a couldn’t figure out what.

A few internet searches later, I had it – a sign. I could hold a sign up with her name, pretending to be a chauffeur in a cute tactic to get her attention. Genius, I thought.

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I was mentally preparing, heart racing when Aimee’s flight was marked as “landed”. And then, with perfect timing, this bloke rocks up.

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Yep. Flowers. He had flowers. Motherf… OK, come on Xav. You’ve got this. I positioned myself strategically so that Aimee wouldn’t notice the more impressive boyfriend welcome his significant other into Berlin, and prayed that his partner would arrive on the flight before Aimee’s. And sure enough, she did. They finished their cringeworthy tears and hug with clutch timing right before Aimee walked into the arrivals hall, all the way to the sign of her “chauffeur”. Boom.

Aimee and I did our best to catch up for our missed months over the loud sounds of commuters pushing onto the bus, but it wasn’t until our arrival in Kreuzburg that we could properly talk. Kreuzburg is the district where we had decided to stay, but unfortunately we couldn’t check-in to our AirBnB for another hour after we had arrived, so we decided to explore one of the recommended streets of the district.

It lived up to Kreuzburg’s name. That is – it was scruffy, graffitied and happening.

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Home of punks, bohemians, LGBT+ people, and any rebel with a cause. Berlin’s Newtown, let’s say. Probably not the most appropriate beginning to Aimee and I’s (relatively) luxurious European holiday, but very trendy nonetheless. We had our coffee and tea, and headed off as soon as our AirBnB was ready for check-in.

Waiting at our new apartment was Lena, native Berliner and Kreuzberg enthusiast. She showed us through her cozy underground hideout, hidden behind a large imposing hallway entrance and bike-littered backyard.

But, following the afternoon resting at the apartment in a failed attempt to battle jet lag, it wasn’t Kreuzburg where we ended up, but rather back around Rosa-Luxembourg-Platz. Here, we were meeting Rebecca. Rebecca, if you remember her from my blogging in Jordan, was one of my Topdeck companions on that tour. Despite being initially from country New South Wales, Rebecca has left her home in Canberra to study abroad in the “Freie Universität” for the winter. She’s an enthusiast of the German language, travel and, can you believe it, blogging. Go check out her work here. We agreed to meet at one of Rebecca’s favourite restaurants – a Vietnamese one. After a few Google searches, it became apparent that due to Berlin’s contemporary multicultural history, Vietnamese was among its best cuisines.

But before dinner started, we had an hour to explore some of the Alexanderplatz streets which I had seen the night prior. Aimee’s addiction to photography quickly revealed itself…

The restaurant itself was dominated by the Communist-looking theatre beside it.

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This restaurant also presented the first hurdle for Aimee, and one which has been the main thing plaguing her mind before her trip – her new diet. Aimee excels in just about every field bar her immune system! It means that she’s been told by dietician to adopt a “Low FODMAP” diet, with low gluten and lactose free being some of the more challenging components. Luckily, she found a dish which suited, and it ended up being a very enjoyable dinner. Best of all, Rebecca has started up her own business designing recipes and is a talented chef, meaning that she was already fully aware of the complexities of a low FODMAP diet.

After what was some unbeatable Vietnamese food, we all moved on to the Alexanderplatz Christmas Market together. Here, we perused the laneways full of trinket and mulled wine-selling shops, laughing at all the hilariously pronounced German words which Rebecca taught us.

There’s something you ought to know about me – I’m a sucker for Christmas. I’m the anti-grinch. I’m not one to get sick of Christmas carols after a week (I’ll often guiltily listen to one mid-year), and the childhood dream of endless White Christmases has never seemed to fade. Luckily Aimee’s the same. It means that places like this are a bit of a utopia for the both of us.

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We ended the evening standing and watching the ice skaters and children on the carousel.

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I learned from past mistakes of being upstaged by Aimee’s effortless backwards ice skating, and so chose intelligently to delay our foray into the rink until another, colder city.

Our jet lag was beginning to sink in, and so before leaving we got one last photo with Rebecca and thanked her for what was a fantastic evening. Her Mum is arriving in Europe very soon where they will explore the continent for Christmas in what will no doubt be the trip of a lifetime.

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The wait for the bus was difficult as the evening freezing temperatures began to sink in. We both vowed to wear more layers tomorrow and made it home in time for an early night’s sleep.

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Day 274 (9th of December 2016) – Berlin, Germany

We woke up early without much trouble. I was up from 6am, in fact. The jet lag had its way. Aim and I had organised a full day of activities to combat an initial bout of homesickness, and it certainly did the job it was intended to do. We became very distracted with the eventful, and not always positive, history of Berlin.

At 9am was our tour of the German Bundestag. We navigated the metro system into Berlin’s central district – Mitte.

And then we saw it – the huge Reichstag Building, centre of the Bundestag and meeting place of the German Parliament.

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This building was originally opened in 1894 to house the “Imperial Diet” of the German Empire. Following Hitler’s election, it was set on fire and severely damaged, an infamous event which was blamed on foreign nations and used as a justification for extremist xenophobic policies. After World War II and the split of Berlin, the Reichstag (through which the Berlin Wall was erected) was put into disuse. It was only in 1999 that the building was reinstated as the modern Bundestag.

We were let in after some security checks to learn more.

The first thing we saw were the original walls covered in graffiti left by Soviet Soldiers following their defeat of the Nazis.

On it you can see the names of soldiers, dates and love messages. There’s something about having the graffiti right there and being able to touch it that makes it so relatable. You can feel the cries of joy of the soldiers after winning, and you can relate to their basking in glory. Perhaps most incredible is Germany’s decision to include this in the building of their Lower House. A mural to their defeat, effectively. Germany are a good example of a country who recognises their past mistakes and makes themselves ever-aware of them in an effort to not repeat them.

Found throughout the building are massive displays of the German Coat of Arms.

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This Coat of Arms, the Bundesadler, was initially adopted in the Weimar Republic of 1919-35, but it has roots going as far back as the 13th and 14th centuries.

We studied a model of the building before being led into its core, walking along the path on which the Berlin Wall once stood, separating the parliamentarians’ offices from the Lower House.

And then, the chamber itself, where the likes of Angela Merkel of other powerful figures meet regularly to make decisions which affect the future of Germany and the EU as a whole.

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The most thrilling part of the tour was being on the roof of the Reichstag, viewing the huge sandstone pillars and wider Berlin from atop the glass dome.

Following the two-hour tour, we dawdled along the canal towards a café for lunch.

We realised that we were cutting it fine for the next part of the day, but luckily due to the relative proximity of the historical sites in central Berlin, we soon found ourselves in Pariser Platz for the beginning of our walking tour.

Pariser Platz is at the end of the famous Unter den Linden and directly behind Brandenburg Gate.

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This 18th-century gate itself has a remarkable history, symbolising both Nazi terror and European unification.

Just near this gate is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

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This Peter Eisenman-designed memorial has never had its symbolism officially explained, but a common interpretation is that as you descend through the model graveyard, your surroundings become more dark and harrowing, just as they did during the Holocaust.

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Only metres away from this memorial is probably my favourite historical place in Berlin. And it’s a parking lot.

What’s remarkable about this place is that it stands immediately over the past location of the Führerbunker – Hitler’s air-raid shelter located 8.5m underground with concrete walls 3-4m thick. What makes this place even more historically significant is that it was the location of Hitler and Eva Braun’s suicide shortly after their marriage.

In 1945, the Red Army launched the Battle of Berlin. They won a relatively swift battle, and it was only just before the Soviet’s arrival at the bunker that Hitler shot himself and his wife committed suicide by cyanide capsule. His top Commanders quickly followed, with Joseph Goebbels poisoning his children and committing suicide with his wife in the bunker.

It is perhaps appropriate that all that remains of the bunker is an underground concrete wreck, not open to the public.

A brief walk from the location of the Führerbunker was the old Nazi Ministry of Aviation. It was here that the devastating air force tactic of Luftwaffe was developed and commanded.

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The building is lined with propaganda from the era of Soviet control. Big displays show happiness and harmony amidst socialism despite East Germany at that time having a dangerously high rate of population decline.

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Just next to this building are some remains of the Berlin Wall – the wall which was erected to stop the emigration of East Germans to the democratic West.

A quick currywurst while looking at the wall went down well.

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The streak of important historical locations was showing no sign of stopping with the next one being Checkpoint Charlie. Also known as Berlin’s biggest “tourist trap”, this was the most well-known crossing point between East and West Germany during the Cold War. It was here that the Berlin Crisis of 1961 hung on a knife’s edge and the world watched nervously as the U.S. and Soviet Union threatened military action in what ultimately ended without a shot fired. On the 22nd of October 1961, 10 Soviet and an equal number of American tanks stood 100 yards apart on either side of the checkpoint over a dispute as to whether East German guards were authorised to examine the travel documents of a U.S. diplomat. With both world powers being in the possession of nuclear weapons, any hostility could have been potentially devastating.

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The walking tour conveniently ended in one of the areas which Aimee and I most wanted to see – Gendermenmarkt. This square is flanked by the German Church and French Church, copied off of each other out of a simple point of pride and religious factional competition.

Bordering Gendermenmarkt and its Christmas Markets are some lovely strips of shops and cafés, all of which we resisted until the end of the tour.

Bordering Gendermenmarkt is the Bebelplatz, a public square in Mitte on the south side of the Unter den Linden boulevard. Facing it is Humboldt University’s Law School.

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The most dark part of this square’s past is the Nazi Book Burning which occurred here on the evening of the 10th of May 1933. Hosted by the nationalist German Student Association, this is the ceremony where Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels gave his inflammatory speech prior to the burning.

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Located beneath the square is an appropriate minimalist memorial to the books and an implicit criticism of the censorship it represents. Every year on the 10th of May, Humboldt students hold a book sale here in commemoration.

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It was getting dark, and just in time for when our appetite grew demanding. Luckily, one of the first restaurants we stumbled upon on the way to the metro station had a number of options for Aimee’s diet, and so we took the opportunity. I had the fried camembert which was delicious.

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It was a long day of walking, and so it wasn’t long until we were pushing to return home.

The walk from one of the metro stations near our AirBnB feels a bit spooky at night, but luckily there aren’t too many idiots in the area to make it dangerous.

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Day 275 (10th of December 2016) – Berlin, Germany

After a comfortable wake-up, Aimee and I made our way out to Berlin Hauptbahnhof for our regional train out to Potsdam for a day trip.

We couldn’t resist adding to our breakfast with some on-the-go snacks before we were on our way.

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Potsdam is the capital and largest city of the German federal state of Brandenburg. Most notably, Potsdam was a residence of the Prussian kings and the German Kaiser until 1918. The city’s planning and the castles within it embody ideas of The Age of Enlightenment: through a careful balance of architecture and landscape, Potsdam was intended as “a picturesque, pastoral dream” which reminded its residents of their relationship with nature and reason.

This immediately became evident from the point at which we exited the train at Potsdam Hauptbahnhof.

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It was only a short bus ride to the first of the two UNESCO World Heritage sites which we planned on seeing: Sanssouci.

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Aimee was instantly in love. I could already tell that this was her favourite part of the trip yet.

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Walking around the Palace Gardens, we started to read up on the history of the place.

Sanssouci, often referred to as the “German Versailles”, is the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. Sanssouci is in Frederick’s favourite Rococo style and it contains numerous temples and follies in the surrounding park. The palace was designed by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (yep, that’s his name) between 1745 and 1747 to fulfill King Frederick’s need for a private residence where he could relax away from the Berlin court.

Strolling around the gardens, we quickly realised that it would be a real shame to miss seeing the inside of the palace.

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So, we went in and bought an audio tour each. The interior was even more opulent than the exterior.

It seems that King Fred really dug this “Rococo Style”. This late baroque style is characterised by asymmetrical ornamentation laden with scrolls and nature motifs.

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This picture was actually taken in the “Voltaire Room”, where the famous philosopher himself often stayed during his 1750-53 sojourn in Potsdam.

We had a few hours following our tour of Sanssouci until our visit to the New Palace, so we figured that it was best if we roamed the park to see what else we could find.

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We made our way down the grand pathway to the New Palace which is perfectly symmetrical from all sides.

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But you know, just like my self-proclaimed edgy and off-centre personality, I just had to break that symmetry.

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As the day grew later, it grew colder. The wind started to find its way down our necks, and the hoods became an essential.

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Aimee in particular found herself amazed at the sheer number of statues adorning each pathway and balcony of the building, and she especially liked the cherubs hidden in some of the higher spots.

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And yet somehow, this “New Palace”…

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…was competing for attention with something equally as impressive – the servants quarters (now a university).

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The New Palace was a project by Frederick the Great completed in 1769 to celebrate Prussia’s success in the Seven Years’ War. The palace had an excess of marble, stone and gilt to proclaim Prussia’s prosperity and gains in their victory over Silesia.

Some rooms, like the Marble Hall, were so excessive that they have since become structurally unstable due to their weight.

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Aimee and I’s favourite room of any of the palaces in Potsdam was this one, adorned purely with seashells and minerals.

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Take a closer look.

The long journey back to central Berlin was timely because it was already getting dark. We had time to briefly return to the apartment to drop our things off before returning out to near Gendermenmarkt for a dinner with one of Aimee’s friends and her brother. Aim was therefore insistent on looking at her best.

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For the past year, Aimee has been working fairly intense hours at Wahroonga After-School Care. I’m not fully in the loop with the job, but all I know is that she loves it and has made a solid group of friends there. I maintain that one day she will inevitably become a primary school teacher. One of her colleagues, Emilie, was in Berlin with her younger brother, Aidan, to celebrate his graduation from high school. We all agreed to meet up for dinner at a pub called Treffpunkt. It was excellent company, and the dinner lasted far longer than my currywurst did as we talked into the night.

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Day 276 (11th of December 2016) – Prague, Czech Republic

It was an incredibly stressful start to the day. An on-time departure for our train trip to Prague ended with a realisation 30 minutes in that we had boarded a bus heading in the complete wrong direction. Suddenly, the pressure was on. “Crisis mode” had begun.

I could see Aimee’s normally relaxed facial expression collapse in front of me. And it was my fault.

Ok, Xavier. Ok. Couples who can travel together stay together. Stay positive. Smile.

We formulated a plan: Uber. Nope, payment failed.

Another plan: Taxi. Nope, none nearby.

Another plan: Public transport. Nope, not fast enough.

Another plan: Run. We didn’t know why, but run. Surely something would happen.

And hey, it did. Ten minutes later, we found a taxi and payed the driver good money to get us to another station which the already departed train would go via. We ran from the taxi and made it with a couple of minutes to spare until our train passed through. Aimee’s relaxed face returned with her trademark sly smirk – neither of us knew how we had achieved the impossible.

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Four hours later, we had disembarked the most Hogwarts-like train imaginable and switched to a tram in the capital of the Czech Republic – Prague.

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And it was on that tram when what was around us started sinking in. I don’t know how many readers of this blog have been to Prague before, but I’m going to attempt to describe it on the assumption that you haven’t. It is a city tangled with narrow, cobbled streets under knots of beautifully crooked stone houses.

Take the street of our hotel, for example.

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Apart from the physically taxing mission of hauling our luggage up the cobblestone hill for hundreds of metres, the rest of the evening’s conversation consisted almost purely of euphoric exclamations at the beauty of what surrounded us. The quaint old streets weren’t limited to any sort of “old town”. They were, quite literally, everywhere.

We couldn’t think of anything more exciting than going for a walk to find a nice, cozy restaurant for dinner.

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We found many, but settled on one only once our appetites became more demanding than our desire to explore.

Maybe the “before” and “after” shot will summarise just how satisfying that big dinner was.

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Bianca even joined us for part of dinner live from Toulouse. She had only recently arrived in the city for her French exchange. Just a short flight from us, and finally someone to communicate with in the same timezone.

We returned to the hotel for what was the most relaxing evening of the trip to date. This hotel, “Design Hotel Neruda”, is really something. The building was built in 1348. Yes. You read that correctly. 1348. Its age showed in only two things: its outward blending into the other romantic houses of the steep street as well as the narrow and winding corridors on the interior. Other than that, the hotel was new and refreshing on the inside.

Prague was definitely off to a good start, and sleeping was difficult that night knowing how much more we were going to see over the coming days.

We can already tell that this place is becoming one of our favourite cities in Europe.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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