The Perfect House: 4 Award-winning Houses in Denmark, Austria, the U.K. and Spain

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Even without peeking through the window, a home can reveal a lot—not just about its inhabitants but their national culture. Across Europe, changing ideas on how to design the perfect home tell us local stories about evolving lifestyles, values and outlooks.

Denmark: shining a light

In Denmark, where the longest day of the year is around 10 hours longer than its shortest, it’s all about light—and the lack of it. “There is a cultural acceptance that it gets dark,” says Danish architect Sigurd Larsen, designer of the Roof House in Copenhagen, a finalist in the 2017 World Architecture Festival Awards distinguished by its dramatic roofscape of intersecting slopes. The love of light was at the heart of its design.

“The Roof House is designed to catch both direct and indirect sunlight at the same time and turn it into an ever-changing experience when walking through the sequence of rooms,” says Larsen. But instead of fighting off the night with a flood of artificial light, Larsen deploys small islands of illumination—low hanging pendants and small table lamps to light specific areas, creating that cozy, intimate feel that Danes call Hygge.

Larsen’s hanging pendants and small table lamps in his Roof House

“This idea that natural and artificial light should have different characters rather than imitating each other is an integral part of Scandinavian interiors.”

Concern for the interior environment is a hallmark of Scandinavian culture in general, says Larsen: “Since a big part of life in Scandinavia is spent indoors, furniture and interior design plays a big role in society.” Over the last 50 years, with changing lifestyles and growing budgets, the focus of design attention has expanded from the living room to across the house.

“The kitchen is probably the room that has evolved the most,” says Larsen. “From being a service room designed for one person to occupy, [it] moved to a central island in the middle of the living area. This is, in a way, a return to the ancient bonfire that kept our forefathers warm.”

Austria: low energy, high design

In Austria, bathrooms and kitchens have also moved beyond utility to living spaces.

With the kitchen now the social centre of the house, ideas about the living room have changed. “Our clients started to have the discussion, “What is the living area used for?” says Vienna-based architect Juri Troy, whose firm is behind a number of award-winning homes including House Under The Oaks, a ultra-low energy passive home concept in Hutten, Austria.

The cantilevered wooden frame of Troy’s House under the oaks

“In the 70s and 80s we had these living landscapes, these sofa landscapes where people laid around on several couches,” says Troy, “But people don’t like that anymore.”

Today in Austrian households, the living area is mostly a cozy private space just for the family, while the kitchen table, once reserved for private dinners is where everyone gathers, including guests. “Perhaps people are more selective about who they are inviting, separating those they want to interact with only on social media from those they want to meet physically,” says Troy.

The simplicity of the interior design goes hand-in-hand with the stripped-down wooden frame

Rising costs have been a major force for change in how homes in Austria are designed today. Working with smaller budgets, Austrians are forced to scale down and think differently.

In House Under The Oaks and other projects, solutions include finding double roles for rooms, flexible open spaces that can be changed simply by sliding doors, and integrated storage.

Together, these create cleaner living spaces that are easier on the eyes. Troy calls this a response to the “overflow of optical influences today” like tablets and phones, “so people want simple spaces with… a view to the outdoors.”

United Kingdom: bringing the English garden in

In London, the idea of the perfect home is often about trying to escape the city while embracing the outdoors. “Culturally, we have always been seen as a nation of gardeners obsessively mowing lawns and pruning roses,” says Will Burges, a director of the London-based 31/44 architects.

“The English garden is a different animal now,” he says, favouring a stronger connection to interior spaces, water features that mask urban noise, ‘outdoor rooms’ with lounge furniture, built-in barbecues and even external kitchens.

The omnipresence of the courtyards at 31/44 Architects’ No 49 house in London

In the No. 49 house, designed by 31/44 architects and longlisted for the 2017 Royal Institute of British Architects House of the Year Award, three garden courtyards bring the outside closer to home. “No. 49 embraces the outdoor life,” says Burges. Hidden behind a wall to the street, the front courtyard provides a space for plants and western light for the main living space, which is also connected to a larger courtyard behind. “In this courtyard you escape the city,” says Burges, “Reclining on a low Danish chair relaxing to the sound of the water feature.”


U.K. residents are after increasingly bold designs

Over the years, Burges has witnessed a shift in British design values when it comes to the perfect home. Working with “generic housing stock with little variety”, just subtle variations seemed to satisfy. “There even seemed to be a reluctance to stand out from the crowd,” says Burges.

Then, in the 1990s, the era of Britpop and Cool Britannia, the culture shifted: a new drive for urban modernisation and the influence of IKEA and Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs Channel 4 series on contemporary design prompted a desire for lighter, open-plan loft living with timbers floors, blinds and light wood furniture. This was “a refreshing alternative to the traditional cellular dark spaces of a Victorian house which were carpeted and textile heavy, “ says Burges.

The overtly modern house and interior is more accepted now in the U.K.

“We found we had a growing number of clients that wanted to live in an overtly modern house and interior—rather than just disappear into an anonymous and safe streetscape. As the country and its cities grew in confidence so did its people.”

Recent years have seen a return to a desire for greater privacy, this time through simple, more flexible design elements. In the No. 49 house, joinery pieces designed for storage and display divide areas of the house while still allowing long, open views. Including refurbished classic British pieces, Scandinavian items and flea market finds from Paris, the home’s interior design reflects the current trend.

“Much like the broad culture of London itself, the interior trend is for an eclectic global mix of furniture and accessories,” says Burges.


In Spain, the desire for privacy is a key home design value. “There is the social aspect of Mediterranean urban planning and lifestyle,” says Jaime Oliver, a director of OHLAB, the firm behind the multi-award winning MM House in Palma de Mallorca. “Maybe because of the weather, public areas in cities have more importance than those in Northern European cities. Perhaps because of this intense urban social activity, people have a greater need for more privacy in their homes.”

Besides that, Oliver notes “the influence of previous cultures, specifically Islamic culture, where privacy is very important to the home.”

OHLAB Architects’ MM House comes from the Spanish need for privacy

This leads to a contrast between outside and inside, as reflected in the striking white boxes of the MM house. “The exterior façade, the one you see from the street, it is basically a wall of different heights with smaller windows that keep the privacy and don’t reveal the openness you will find behind that entry wall,” says OHLAB director Paloma Hernaiz.

“From the inside, all the openings to the garden and the southeast are large, framed in a way that allows for the best views… but block the numerous neighbours residing in the dense neighbourhood.”

The generous views from the inside avoid direct lines of sights with the neighbours

Another key Spanish home design value—compartmentalisation—has its origins in what Oliver calls the old “hierarchal and sexist” Spanish family structure, dating back to a time when family members were in effect assigned certain areas of the house. “Obviously, this structure has been evolving with social and lifestyle changes,” says Oliver.

The transition to the age of a more egalitarian family, smaller homes and the need for a better use of space are all reflected in the MM House, which embraces both openness and privacy, and includes the “unexpected and in-between spaces” favoured by Jose Antonio Coderch, one of Spain’s most influential post-war architects. “The MM House is a game between very compartmentalised rooms that can be easily connected or separated, linked through different hallways and double height connections,” says Oliver.

The desk area opens up on the outside terrace

Along with its four distinctive volumes, whitewashed walls and tiled floors that reflect the trees outside, the MM House has won admiration for its low energy and water needs. Residents have no need for heating and rain supplies all their water.

“The biggest part of the home’s success… comes from traditional knowledge: orientation, cross-ventilation, rainwater collection and so on,” says Hernaiz. “This is knowledge that has been neglected throughout the last century due to globalisation and decontextualising.”

The pursuit of resource efficiency is a design value now shared across most European ideals of the perfect home. Like the shared love of flexible spaces, clean interiors and connections with the outdoors, how it will be realised is also likely to vary from country to country, believes Hernaiz. “The biggest part of energy-efficient architecture is to be found in traditional local knowledge specific to each climate.”

See more inspired design with our newest openings at InterContinental Hotels & Resorts around the world.

Images courtesy of Sigurd Larsen ArchitectsJuri Troy Architects31/44 Architects and OHLAB Architects

Beyond Paris, London and Milan: the Next European Fashion Capitals

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The ‘big four’ fashion capitals of Paris, Milan, London and New York dominate global trends, but cities around the world still strive to create their own distinct fashion identities.

At off-the-beaten track fashion weeks, under-the-radar talent is striving to express local identity and aesthetics, and doing so eloquently. We asked three voices fluent in the local fashion dialect to interpret European style in Amsterdam, Madrid and Moscow

1. “It’s already crazy enough” Amsterdam

Edgy and highly tailored to every individual – Photo: SPRMRKT


“Amsterdam is a super-liberated and free town,” says Nelleke Strijkers, founder of the concept store SPRMRKT, which opened in Amsterdam in 2003 before relocating to Ibiza in 2016. “Lots of things are possible.” At the same time, “Dutch people are a bit boring and not very outgoing. We have a saying: ‘Please act normal, because that’s already crazy enough,'” which often translates into a uniform of “jeans and basic clothing”.

There might be exceptions—Strijkers flags the glamorous, up-and-coming designer David Laport, a recent winner of the Woolmark Award, and “super colourful” Bas Kosters. But originality dominates. “Lots of fashion designers, like Jean-Paul Gaultier, or the Japanese, come to Amsterdam just to watch people on the street because everybody dresses differently.”

In three words, how would you describe the Amsterdam fashion scene?

Original, fresh, local

What should you pack if you’re coming to Mercedes-Benz FashionWeek Amsterdam?

Layers—as you never know what the weather will be like. And try to be different: dare to stand out, be original.

What should you leave at home?

Sunglasses—they’re not needed outside and we don’t have Anna Wintour sitting front row.

Three must-do things while you’re here?

Visit a museum, like the Stedelijk or Rijks Museum. Go to Noordermarkt on Monday morning—great for vintage bargains and try the best apple pie in the city from Cafe Winkel.

The best one-stop concept store?

Check out De Hallen food market and cinemas in a former tram depot converted into a cultural centre. Westergasfabriek, a converted factory with restaurants and bars.

An up-and-coming local designer you should buy?

I’m in love with the jeans collection from Hardeman, but there are a lot of young interesting brands.

An established local designer you need in your wardrobe, and why?

Moniquevanheist—she doesn’t make a new collection every season but keeps the same designs in different fabrics. Her collection is a range of super classics with a twist.

2. “Easy-going and cool” Madrid

Delpozo’s playful yet radically elegant designs – Photo: Delpozo pre-fall 2017 collection


“We don’t have a lot of tribes like London,” says Mario Canal, contemporary art and fashion correspondent for Spanish Harper’s Bazaar and Icon, a mens’ magazine published by El Pais. “We don’t struggle to identify ourselves as different. There’s no need to polarise society. Everybody does what they do.”

“In Madrid, the fashion is very relaxed and easy-going and cool. Girls like to be pretty but they don’t overdo it. They have long hair and they’re not afraid of showing their bodies—perhaps because of the weather—but at the same time comfort is fundamental.”

“Our women are not like Parisian girls who wear high heels all day. A Spanish woman can’t understand why you’d want to do that.” And while Parisians pay attention to following trends, their sisters south of the Pyrenees care more about self-expression and having fun. “We like going out with our friends, with our families. We like going out a lot…”

In three words, how would you describe the Madrid fashion scene?

Intimate, easy-going, open.

What should you pack if you’re coming to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Madrid?

Comfortable and slick clothes. Madrid is low-key but we have an eye for details.

What should you leave at home?

Your Louboutins.

Three must-do things while you’re here?

Have some cañas (beer served in small glasses) or soft drinks in a cheap bar; watch the sunset by the Egyptian Temple of Debod; visit the Prado Museum and nearby Retiro Park.

The best one-stop concept store in town?

Ekseption; High-end, sexy, glamorous, fun and exclusive garments. You won’t need Paris anymore.

An up and coming local designer you should buy, and why?

Palomo Spain. A whole new generation of creative minds are gathering around him and his genderless and sexy clothing made him a Louis Vuitton Prize finalist. He dresses Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus.

An established local designer you need in your wardrobe, and why?

Delpozo, for its playful yet radical and elegant designs—totally mind-blowing and beautiful as wild flowers.

3. “Dressing up and showing off, but with taste” Moscow

The elegant menswear style of Artem Shumov – Photo: Artem Shumov SS17 collection

“Russians like to dress and to show off… but with taste”, explains Alexander Shumsky, the President of the Russian Fashion Council and founder of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia.

Russian fashion is booming, with 250 requests for the 50-60 available slots each fashion week, while new talents are discovered “literally every season.” One current star is the designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, who in January persuaded fashion editors and buyers from around the world to make the long trip out to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast just to see his menswear show.

In general, Russians have a long appreciation of traditional craft. “Some designers can be a bit too decorative because Russian clients are keen on that. But we also have minimalist ones.”

Each region has a specific style. “You always know that a brand is from St Petersburg when you see a collection with an elegant, rainy mood,” says Shumsky.

In three words, how would you describe the Moscow fashion scene?

Young, vibrant, promising.

What should you pack if you’re coming to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Moscow?

A coat and scarf because in October it could be already snowing and in March it could be still snowing.

What should you leave at home?

A guide on “How to drink vodka”. Moscow is good for cocktails.

Three must-do things while you’re here?

Walk through Red Square at night (just around the corner from the #MBFWRussia venue, Manege), browse art galleries in Vinzavod, and go to the Bolshoi Theater (ask for the historic stage).

The best one-stop concept store in town?

Le Form (already 20 years old).

The best restaurant/café/bar for Moscow street style during fashion week?

Any place at Patriarshiye Ponds. For drinks, check out the Mercedes Bar at the top of one of the famous Stalinist skyscrapers.

An up and coming local designer you should buy, and why?

Artem Shumov is a menswear designer you have to know, with a sharp style. Also Mach & Mach because they just dressed Katy Perry, so you deserve it too.

An established local designer you need in your wardrobe, and why?

For truly Haute Couture attire you have only one destination in Moscow – Slava Zaitsev Fashion House. Slava is the Godfather of Russian fashion and an amazing couturier, nicknamed the Red Dior by the international fashion media scene.


Indulge in a fashion-inspired journey on your next trip with Club InterContinental. Our hosts and Concierges at InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, InterContinental Madrid and InterContinental Moscow – Tverskaya will de be delighted to arrange itineraries and meetings for you.

Orchestral Manoeuvres: How tiny Malta Created an Internationally Renowned Philharmonic

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Violin player of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra during a live performance – photo: Matthew Grech, courtesy of the MPO

With a population of less than half a million, Malta packs a musical punch well above its weight.

Malta has been the birthplace of many acclaimed composers, including Nicolò Isouard (1773-1818), Francesco Azopardi (1748-1809), and more recently, Carmelo Pace (1909-1993) and Charles Camilleri (1931-2009), whose prolific and diverse output included everything from piano music to operas and film scores. Today, local luminaries include the composer Ruben Zahra, who combines Maltese and Mediterranean folk with classical, rock and jazz influences, and Joseph Calleja, one of the world’s leading tenors, often compared to past giants like Jussi Björling and Enrico Caruso.

Malta’s unique musical culture reflects its rich history. Italian flamboyance and Arabic melancholy infuse local folk music, in particular the ancient local tradition of Għana, a sung lament. Echoes of church music and of military bands weave in and out of classical works by local composers, a reminder of Malta’s history as home to the Knights of St John and, later, a British colony and military base.

The MPO’s répertoire of representations includes novel formats such Rockestra – photo: Matthew Grech, courtesy of the MPO

Malta’s musical identity now is the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, whose 10th anniversary next year coincides with the Maltese capital, Valletta, becoming the European Capital of Culture.

Sigmund Mifsud, Executive Chairman, explains the Maltese passion for music and the role the orchestra plays in the islands’ story.

Can you tell us a bit about Malta’s relationship with music? How does such a small country manage to produce so much musical talent?

As Maltese we are very passionate about whatever we do. We have this Mediterranean culture and we are also influenced by other countries; the Italians, and, in the past, the British… We are very loud and music is a way of expressing ourselves.

Malta seems to invest a lot in musical education. What is the orchestra’s role in this process?

The School of Music of Malta is free for everyone. It was originally created for people whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for lessons. Many parents take their children there now and there are many good teachers. At the Malta Philharmonic we are helping develop the Youth Orchestra. Three years ago we started the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra Academy to help develop the best talent. Our internship programme some work within the administration. When possible we organise master classes led by our lead musicians and international soloists to help our musicians develop.

What was your background prior to becoming Chair of the Malta Philharmonic?

I used to play the trumpet with the orchestra. I also did musical arrangements and organised concerts for big bands and full orchestras, which helped shape my vision of how things can develop. Now Malta has three local big bands that are very busy all year round doing functions, playing at weddings, playing on TV programmes. I have always encouraged live music in any form and it’s gaining a lot of popularity here.

You’re not afraid to mix musical genres, with projects like The National Orchestra goes Pop and the Rockestra. Where do such projects lead?

The original idea came when I was playing in the [chamber] orchestra 18, 20 years ago. At the time, the orchestra wasn’t very popular; attendance was poor and we only did one, sometimes two, concerts a month. I thought we could make it more popular by doing popular music. So we did The National Orchestra Goes Pop—which after five years developed into Rockestra, done under the patronage of the president of Malta— involving pop singers, introducing the orchestra to a broader audience and involving new sponsors.

The orchestra’s main role is to play classical music, but it’s good to diverge into different genres. We only have one professional orchestra in Malta, so I always thought it should reach the community in different ways. Nowadays I’m very proud to say that the orchestra is very much in demand. From having 1-2 concerts a month the orchestra now has 1-2 concerts a week. As long as it’s good music, there’s room for everything, in my opinion.

Malta has a rich tradition of international exchange in musical talent. How do these connections nourish the local music scene?

We have invested a lot in getting foreign artists, such as conductors, to collaborate with us; we believe it’s very important. Every conductor brings his own knowledge and experience during the weeks that he works with the musicians and this is very healthy for the orchestra. But we also export our talent. We have a five-member wind ensemble from the orchestra that has been playing abroad in Germany, Vienna and elsewhere for the last five years.

Before I was appointed chairman four years ago, the orchestra hadn’t travelled for five years. Two months after my appointment, I signed a contract for our orchestra to do a China tour with eight concerts. We went to Milan for the Expo Milan. We played at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, we played at the Musikverein in Vienna, we played in Rome… And we have other plans for next season when we will tour five countries. It’s important for our orchestra to play at the international level.

Inviting experienced conductors has helped the MPO to develop its talents – photo: Matthew Grech, courtesy of the MPO Who are some of the outstanding local

Who are some of the outstanding local musicians currently involved in the Malta Philharmonic?

First and foremost is Carmine Lauri. He is the co-principal of the London Symphony Orchestra. We invite him every year, sometimes to lead the orchestra, sometimes as a soloist. Recently we commissioned a recording with a local musician, Etienne Cutaja. Cutaja was the co-principal of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. After an amazing career there, he has returned to Malta and is leading our horn section. Obviously he’s used to certain standards and he influences our musicians in a positive way. Having these musicians back home and starting to teach, that helps our development.

What are your ambitions?

My vision is to keep strengthening the orchestra’s professional identity. I want young musicians to look up to our senior musicians and think, “I want to be one of them, I want to be part of the orchestra.” I want to get a proper concert hall; right now we are ‘homeless’. We are collaborating with a private investor so that we will have our first recording studio that can accommodate a full symphony orchestra. I would like to see a proper academy so the orchestra can keep on growing. I want to build the youth orchestra, and create a children’s orchestra for under-12s. I want to show what an interesting and creative profession this is; that being a musician is something to be envied.

Malta’s cultural sphere of influence is impressive for such a small island. Yet, the nation puts an emphasis on this soft power element, from visual arts to music through to literature, thanks to the National Library’s new CEO.

For more on how to best discover Malta’s treasures, follow the recommendations of InterContinental Malta’s Concierges.

Knowledge Is Power: The Woman Keeping Malta’s National Library Relevant

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By the standards of the ancient military religious order that once ruled Malta, the National Library of Malta in the heart of Valletta is still in its youth.

The spectacular Baroque building in which it now resides, on Republic Square in Malta’s capital, was built in 1796. Yet, it safeguards the unique archive of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, an organisation of knights dating back to the First Crusade, granted sovereign independence by Pope Pascal II in 1113.

Despite the weight of all the history contained within its walls, the library’s youthful director, Joanne Sciberras, very much keeps her eyes on its future. Sciberras served as Deputy Librarian from 2012 to 2016 before being appointed the top job, and visited the National Library for the first time while studying history at the University of Malta. “Being a history lover, I immediately felt at home, surrounded by all those books and manuscripts full of knowledge on my country,” she recalls.

Her duties read like something out of The Da Vinci Code. Sciberras regularly handles unique documents in the library’s exceptional collection, the origins of which date back to 1555, when the Order of St John of Jerusalem decreed that all books belonging to its deceased knights must pass into its archives. In 1760, the Order inherited the collection of Cardinal Joaquin Portocarrero, and in 1766 Fra Louis Guerin de Tencin, Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order, bequeathed an estimated 9,700 books.

The collection includes sixty 15th century incunabula—the earliest printed books— including a translation of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, printed in Rome in 1490. A translation of a work dating back to 150AD, it contains one of the earliest printed maps of the Mediterranean to include Malta. The archive also holds a collection of rare book bindings, including some once belonging to Louis XV of France; plus a papal bull issued by Pope Pascal II on February 15th, 1113 granting a Christian hospital in the city of Jerusalem the right to operate as a new religious order, becoming the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

“This bull is the beginning of the hospital’s history as an independent institution,” says Sciberras. The Order later ruled the island of Rhodes and then Malta from 1530 until 1798, when they were expelled by Napoleon, just two years after their new library had been completed. “They didn’t have enough time to take the collection with them when they fled during the French invasion and basically that’s the reason the archives remain here in Malta,” she explains.

“During their rule they established Malta as the epitome of Europe as a cultural hub. They invested a lot in Baroque architecture. If you come to Valletta I would say they not only built the city; they gave the city its identity.”

“You need to address the audience you have according to the time you’re living in”

For Sciberras, preserving this legacy has its challenges. The library building needs almost constant and costly maintenance, and the ornate façade was restored in 2008 and a restoration of the main hall ceiling and construction of an elevator is due soon. It’s also difficult to find space for the ever-expanding collection and to keep the library relevant in changing times.

For most of its existence, the library was only open to researchers and scholars. Ten years ago it finally opened its doors to the general public, offering school visits, seminars and exhibitions. It is possible to rent out the building for events such as weddings and civil unions. “You need to move on and you need to address the audience you have according to the time you’re living in,” says Sciberras. “With the younger generation, everything needs to be available with the click of a button,” says Sciberras. The library is now in the process of digitising its entire collection to make its texts accessible to students and researchers in other countries. Going digital will also help preserve fragile documents and books that will no longer need to be handled on a regular basis.

But in an age when many people read books on phones and tablets and rarely put pen to paper, Sciberras still believes it’s important to connect directly with the printed word. “Books were, are and remain a source of all knowledge. Reading plays an important role in the development of literary and numerical skills and libraries play an important role in promoting reading as part of lifelong learning process,” she says.

Malta, famous for its knights and Baroque architecture, was once part of the famous ‘Grand Tour’ taken by the European elite from the late 1600s to the mid 1800s, offering worldliness and sophistication through immersion in European ‘high culture’. For Sciberras, this is an idea she would like to see enjoy something of a revival. While tourists still make their way to Malta, she wants local authorities to invest more in marketing the National Library as one of Europe’s most important cultural sites.

“I have a big challenge to convince the authorities that the library is not just a library. It’s a cultural and educational hub that can offer a lot more. When we get people from abroad they are amazed. They never imagined that we have such a collection.”

But it’s not all high culture for Sciberras. After she departs the library’s grand reading room, where wooden bookcases tower all the way to its vertiginous ceilings, she often spends her spare time reading historical fiction, and she’s currently reading Dan Brown’s Inferno.

“I think it’s because of my background in history,” she says. “I find it really relaxing reading novels.”


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