Get Your Own Shoes

If you take my [parking] spot, take also my handicap.

If you take my [parking] spot, take also my handicap.

Hello dear reader,

I’m sorry for being absent but as I mentioned in the past, I get caught up living life and to be frank, there’s something that’s been bothering me regarding my posts, and perhaps it will come off as a rant, but whatcha gonna do. You see, people think that I travel a lot, therefore I must be rich. This annoys me not only because I don’t even travel that much but because I often get all sorts of demented comments such as, “You’re so lucky! I wish I had the kind of money and time you have.”

Really? Really?

All that means, really, is that the idiot saying that knows squat about travel or me, and I wouldn’t care about it if only those people would leave me alone. The trouble is that most people think travel is the same as going on vacation, and for most people going on vacation means booking an expensive hotel, buying overpriced “local” crap and eating at authentic tourist trap restaurants. Those people have no idea that I (and people who travel like me) easily travel for a week on what they spend per day, that I stay at hostels or couchsurf, buying dinner or gifts for my hosts, and that I eat at local joints tourists might never know exist because these places are far from the touristy parts of town.

This “lucky” lifestyle actually comes with sacrifices and inconveniences, such as sometimes not having a home to go back to, being awoken by drunk Irish girls at hostels or finding yourself sleeping amid dusty bunnies on a stranger’s floor. But all that – and lots more – comes with the package, and you deal. But most people don’t want any part of the sacrifices, they just want the benefits. A former coworker, for instance, talking about how she envied my travels, was astounded to find out what a hostel is and that people actually choose to stay at them, and said she’d never be able to share a room with strangers. What can I say…

Well, actually, there is something I have wanted to say for a long time now to those people: fuck off. You see, lots of nice people give me feedback on my stories, on and off line, but I also often hear from envious folks and no matter how many times I explain that budget travel is a choice anyone, including them, can make, these folks prefer to believe they’re victims of destiny who were dealt a bad hand, unlike me with my private jet and trust fund, or so they seem to believe. I normally try to help these people see the possibilities because it’s a beautiful world out there but the conversation eventually culminates with them brushing me off by telling me, “You’re so lucky!”

If by “lucky” they mean “person who works hard,” then sure. Or “person who has slept at airports to save for travel,” then right on. Or maybe “person who found herself locked out on New Year’s Eve in Rio,” then you got it! Otherwise, enough. Quit it coz I’ve had it.

The majority of humans on Earth need to work and make sacrifices for what they want. I’m one of those people, and if further explanation is necessary to make the point clear, I’ll illustrate one big difference (among many) between the envious and me (and people like me?): the self-proclaimed unlucky see a flat screen TV and save money to buy it. People like me see the same TV, imagine how long we could travel for with the money spent on said TV, then save less than that for travel. Different priorities, that’s all it is.

In sum, anyone unhappy with their lives needs to take responsibility for their choices, and if anyone wants to wear my shoes they’ll have to learn to put up with blisters. Oh, and get your own shoes.

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September 1, 2015 · 12:10

The Time I Walked 35 Kilometers

A villa along the way

A villa along the way

As I mentioned previously, Radicofani is a town on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which begins in Canterbury, England, and technically ends in Jerusalem, though these days most pilgrims stop in Rome as it’s too dangerous to proceed to the Middle East.

Feeling immensely grateful for all my blessings, I felt I’d ended up in Radicofani for a reason: to express gratitude as a pilgrim. I was familiar with El Camino de Santiago, which actually joins the Via Francigena, and I thought walking alone would be a tremendous spiritual experience. I did some research and found out that it wasn’t bad luck after all to walk “backwards” towards Siena instead of south towards Rome, where I’d just been for a wedding. There was little information on the route but I learned that it was well-marked in both directions. There was no physical map to be found in Radicofani and region, though, so I took screenshots of a hand-drawn map with my smartphone and wrote down southbound directions I’d found online – I’d just need to follow them backwards.

North or South? One of a few types of marking

North or South? One of a few types of marking

Forty minutes into my walk I stood still facing a chicken wire fence. I’d walked 20 minutes down a steep dirt road covered in gravel and loose rocks, and was hoping that I was not in fact lost, but that a mean person had blocked the Via Francigena with the fence. Realizing that my maps and instructions were totally useless, I eventually admitted that yup, I was lost and would indeed have to walk back up the hill. I was completely alone amidst fields, was drenched in sweat and my back was killing me. This wasn’t just a “WTF was I thinking?!” moment again, it was a WTF crisis and I wanted to cry.

But crying wasn’t going to get me any farther along the remaining 30+ kilometers of journey and it was already 10:30, so I half climbed up the hill using my hands to steady myself till I was back on the right path. I’d get lost a few more times along the way, as the northbound signs aren’t as precise as those southbound (or present at all at times) but onwards and upwards – often literally. At one point I felt like that person in movies whose point of view we rarely get to see: I came out of nowhere and asked the men at a Via Cassia gas station if I could use their bathroom. Afterwards I walked away and disappeared behind some bushes as I started off on the side of the highway, whose next exit was many kilometers to come. The men stared at me curiously and watched me go with a “WTF?” look on their faces (I looked back).

In fact, along the way a group of four brightly dressed and chirpy Italian woman pilgrims were so surprised at my lone pilgrim “courage,” as they put it, that they asked to take pictures with me. I passed and chatted with a few other pilgrims but for the most part I was alone through rolling hills and by the side of roads. Except for a couple of assholes, drivers were very respectful and kept a very good distance from me, which was heartwarming.

Castiglione d'Orcia, where I should have ended up if the map were correct, or if I knew how to read it.

Castiglione d’Orcia, where I’d have passed through if my map had been correct, or if I knew how to read said map.

Some 6 hours into the pilgrimage I got totally lost and found no signs anywhere. My feet were threatening to detach from my ankles if I didn’t sit the fuck down already but, with the sun getting lower in the sky, I had to get back on track. I found my way to a paved road and saw a sign for Agriturismo Sant’Ansano along with a phone number, which I called. After explaining that I was looking for information, I heard the line go silent. Dropped call, I thought. Roaming charges or not, I called again. The deluge of insults that came through the phone before the cunt on the line hung up again made me think of the horrible Italians my grandmother used to tell me about (“They’re coarse,” grandma would say when I’d ask about our ancestors). I did not wish the cunt well.

Then I heard voices – not in my head but real voices coming from some heads bobbing beyond some tall grass. They were a Romanian immigrant couple, and I told them I was a pilgrim looking for the Via Francigena walking route towards San Quirico d’Orcia.

Husband: You want to WALK there?! It’s only 15 minutes by bus!
Me (suppressing a “don’t you think I’d have thought of that?” expression): Thank you, but as a pilgrim I want to walk there.
H: Why walk if you can take the bus? It’s far.
Me: Um… Do you not know what a pilgrimage is?
H: Of course I do, but San Quirico d’Orcia is only 15 minutes by bus. Why do you want to walk?
Me: Well, the point of a pilgrimage is to walk.
H: But it’s far to walk, there’s a bus stop in the next town.

I smiled and thanked him, and we all walked towards the next town, Gallina, where I planned to ask for directions. The husband would not let go of his bus suggestion, even after I’d said I’d look for the bus stop. I just kept my zen.

Once in town I thanked the couple for their help and went into a cafe for a bottle of water and directions. I rested my blister-covered feet and immensely painful back, completely unaware that I still had 3 hours of walking ahead of me.

Northward marking

Northward markings are often more discreet (read: hidden) than southbound ones

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Open Air Thermal Baths in San Casciano dei Bagni

To the person without their own means of transportation, the downside of a peaceful and quiet setting is that there’s sparse to no public transport available. If I were to go back to Tuscany I’d go by car or, better yet, camper van, even if this time round I’d been super lucky to have such kind and generous hosts who offered me rides whenever they drove somewhere, which was often.

It was by their suggestion that I ended up in San Casciano dei Bagni, famous for a big (fancy) thermal complex – with rude staff – but also for real Roman baths, some of which are still in use and which are way more interesting than the snobbish complex – in addition to being free, as intended not only by the Romans but also by nature.

The thermal pool, now fenced off

The thermal pool, now fenced off.

I walked down to these open baths on the rather steep dirt road at the entrance to town (as opposed to the trail at the other side of town). By the side of the dirt road a small wooden bridge over a stream leads to a grassy footpath and a beautiful big thermal blue pool that was built by the Romans all those centuries ago. This pool is fenced off as it’s become dangerous due to water sources eroding the sandy bottom, but it’s certainly worth a look. Back on the dirt road you eventually come to a curve and, just round the corner, the small, active hot baths. The thermal source is just across the road and it’s also fenced off as it’s dangerous, but this means the water in the top bath is nice and hot.

What was super cool about these baths was that while tourists from various countries were enjoying the attraction, locals, too, would stop by for a dip during their work break or on their way to or from home (imagine being able to do that!). This was the real deal. No fancy complex, just a nature’s gift being enjoyed in nature.

I didn’t take too many photos because I was enjoying it all too much to be bothered but also because it seemed like the respectful thing to do in a bath, however public. On my second day I was asleep on the warm, smooth slabs of stone when I heard a loud whirring-buzzing sound, like EEEEHHHHHHH!!!!! and BZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!! at the same time. What in the world could be disturbing the oh-so-lovely peace! Opening my eyes against the bright sun I saw what I thought was a remote-controlled helicopter, but eventually realized the thing was just the newest obnoxious gadget: the camera drone. The cherry on the cake was that the Italian man operating the irritating machine was letting the thing linger a little too long above the women. I didn’t even know what to say to such a person but eventually he left.

Not only is there no end to human stupidity, the same applies to human assholishness.

To return home I was supposed to take what I thought was the 15:30 bus, which actually comes at 14:30. Oopsie! I’d have to wait for the next one, at 19:00. I thought, I guess I’ll just have to soak in awesome thermal waters again for a few hours more… On my way back down an elderly man in a red truck scooter offered me a ride to the baths. How he thought the two of us could possibly fit in the tiny cabin was beyond me but he assured me it was possible and so I squeezed myself into the cabin.

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Fungo. Buonissimo!

By the time we got to the baths I’d prayed to every saint I could think of because the small vehicle seemed to nearly flip at every bump as we rode down. The kind man smiled at me as I popped out of the cabin like a jack-in-the-box, then he went off to his farm. A few hours of lounging like a lizard and it was time to go walk back up to town. A nice Italian guy who’d also been bathing invited me to eat a “fungo,” or “mushroom,” which I found strange until he explained that he was referring to a pastry made of two cookies, one filled with cream and the other with chocolate, assembled in the form of a mushroom. It was delicious!

We chatted as we looked at the rolling hills bellow, and the guy told me how much he loved that peaceful green area but had to live in Florence for work. I thought that the world is truly beautiful and wondered how and why humans can’t just enjoy it, but tend to make things so complicated.

 

View from San Casciano dei Bagni

View from San Casciano dei Bagni

The top pool in the open baths

The middle pool in the open baths, with the slabs of smooth rock on the right

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Bagni San Filippo

I’d gone to Bagni San Filippo to bathe in the hot springs and see the Fosso Bianco, the white mound my Italian host had told me about. After getting off the truck, I pushed my bike down a narrow dirt path and onto a precarious wood board over a stream before continuing left on the well-worn path.

IMG_20150415_114003The crisscrossed bulging tree roots along the way made the go bike unfriendly, so I left my bike against the wood fence and walked down. The water went from clear to a light blue color I’d never seen before in nature, and then I saw the amazing, massive white pudding-looking mound and stopped in my tracks. Over the centuries the sulphuric waters from the hot springs in those woods created calcium formations small and large, and this hillock is the biggest of them all. It was impressive and I had to take photos. The pools and streams below looked like light blue paint and – wait, is that – is that a naked dude cuddling and soaping up his dog in the top pool, where I was going to bathe? Meaning that soapy dog water’s going to run down to all the other pools below it, so that I obviously won’t go in any of them?!

And that is why I do not own a shotgun, because there are too many reasons to use one. To boot the poor dog’s expression screamed, “PLEASE: someone get me outta here!” For crying out loud… I guess I’ll just take photos of the mound – you cannot be serious! Are those two women who just stood up halfway up the thing really buck naked?! Come on, why can’t I just have a normal vacation!

And why were those idiots – hippies by the way – on the Fosso Bianco to begin with? There was a sign forbidding people from going up there, because doing that obviously causes irreparable wear and damage to a thing that took centuries to take shape! But everyone was going up anyway, and there were innumerable “I was here” carvings all over the place. Again, no shot gun…

After taking some photos of naked hippie-free spots, I went back up the path and bathed in the hot pools upstream, where some older couples were. The water was fantastic! And there was even a small waterfall that acted as an amazing back massager. “I could stay here all night,” I said to the couples. Lo and behold, a retired Italian couple invited me to spend the night in their camper van! Very tempting but I knew that once I got into bed that night I would want to stay in it all next morning and that by nightfall I would be cranky, so I politely declined. After exploring the large, calm pools farther up from where I’d entered the area, I hopped on my bike and headed down hill. Wheeee!

The twenty kilometers back went rather smoothly save for the tens of times I’d to sit down to rest, lest I pass out and be found days later with a dog licking my face. I was running out of water, the sun was mercilessly beating down on my tiny head and, oh yeah, mountains. Every time I slumped down on the gravel path alongside the asphalt road, my hopes that a trucker might stop and offer me a ride would go up. Alas… At some point I decided to follow a sign I’d seen earlier, “Via Francigena,” which I’d learned was an ancient pilgrimage route. There was much less pollution on this dirt path so at least I could breathe properly for part of the return trip.

Then, feeling blessed indeed, I was back at the B&B in one piece, some two and a half hours after taking off from Bagni San Filippo. My host was outside tending the gardens and was relieved to see me. He and his wife had been worried, he said. I asked him to please never let me do something so demented again and he laughed at me.

The irony was that now, sore from toes to hair, I could really use the soothing effects of hot springs.

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Let’s Go Bike Riding in Tuscany!

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Twenty meters up the road and I knew I’d made a bad decision. But I couldn’t turn back, not after I’d assured my host that, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be fine! I ride my bike all the time.” The kind, polite and handsome Italian man had reminded me that we were not in flat Amsterdam but in the most mountainous region of Tuscany.

Ah, Tuscany! I’d finally made it there after hearing so much about it. The area where I was was indeed a bit steeper than I’d expected – I’d looked for rolling hills but this was a mountain range, and I was staying halfway up a mountain near Radicofani. My host had lent me one of his sons’s mountain bikes and I felt like taking a break as soon as I’d made it out of the driveway, twenty meters up the road. WTF had I been thinking?! I’d been on mountains before and I know they’re the opposite of flat! Whatever, only 19 kilometers and 880 meters up and down mountains to go.

I pushed the bike most of the way, if not because it was too hard (in the hot sun) to ride up then because I was afraid the brakes would give out on the way down, or because the wind was so strong on bridges so high I was afraid of being blown over. Groups of older men with rock-solid calves, on their Tour de France bikes passed me as I panted. Bastards. I didn’t care if it took me all day, I was going to make it to bloody Bagni San Filippo, though returning, well, I couldn’t even think about that now. At any rate my attention was on the gorgeous views and on each moment of the journey. Cars and trucks passed by rather frequently but there was still plenty of time to take in the sounds of wind, birds and occasionally that lovely, rare sound, silence.

This all was quite a change from hectic Rome, where I’d attended a friend’s wedding just days earlier (spoiler: I did not move to Rome for a boyfriend). I had planned this trip as a real vacation – meaning I’d not work on the road, which is what I normally do – and it’d be my first in some six years, as I’d been (over)working for a supposedly good company for a few months and had accumulated several vacation days.* I’d booked a room at the lovely B&B Corvaia and intended to take it easy in the calm and silence of the country for a week.

Now I was riding, or rather, pushing my bike up and down through the landscape of so many people’s dreams and thinking about recent changes in my life, which boiled down to my presently having very little work and no place to live back in overpriced Amsterdam. But adversity’s old news and it does not forbid a person from counting their blessings and enjoying the privilege that is freedom.

Soon I was crossing a flat stretch of the Cassia, the road made by the Romans many hundreds of years ago, and which is now paved with asphalt and named with some anonymous EU-assigned letter-number combo. I crossed it with care as sweat ran down my, well, everything, and as I began on the other side of the Cassia, I saw the steep road I’d have to climb. My heart deflated and if my legs could cry they’d have being doing just that. An Indian man stood next to a truck by the side of the road and I asked him how much farther I had to go. “Four kilometers,” he said, “but it’s steep.” I couldn’t help but blurt out, “Oh my God!” I mean, why – how?! Do other people do this to themselves?! The man then said that if I wanted a ride we could put my bike in the back of the truck. “Yes! Yes! I’d really like that! Thank you!” I said happily. Oh, thank God!

When he dropped me off, the man pulled out a purse from a cardboard box in the back of his truck and told me that he makes leather bags for a luxury brand. I mean, really, that information should have been disclosed first so that I could have had enough time to ask for a free sample or at least an enormous discount. Some people… But the man had already been so generous by giving me a ride that it seemed crass and greedy to ask any more of him. I expressed my amazement at his trade and thanked him profusely for his kindness. He drove up the incline and I pushed my bike down a side road towards Bagni San Filippo.
—–
*Americans: in the Netherlands you start accumulating your 25+ mandatory vacation days as soon as you start working and can ask to take them as soon as you want. You don’t have to wait a whole year before taking a day off. Socialism is horrible, isn’t it!

Mount Amiata (a dormant volcano) in the distance.

Mount Amiata (a dormant volcano) in the distance.

Horses with Radicofani in the distance

Horses with Radicofani in the distance

Onto dirt roads

Onto dirt roads

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How to Spend Your Birthday in Your Birthday Suit – Part 2

Any awkward situation can be made worse if you’re naked. Eat too many beans and get stuck in an elevator with that guy you’ve been flirting with? Worse if you’re naked. See your girlfriend bent over in the kitchen and grab her butt, only to find out it’s her mom on a surprise visit? Yup. Have poor vision and do not know your way around a Dutch sauna complex? Well, come with me…

I was standing – naked – in the sauna’s entry hall, dripping wet towel in hand, trying to figure out which way to go. Naked people walked around, penises bouncing, boobs bobbing, and yet it felt like everyone was staring at me – if they were it’s because I was standing in that hall a little too long, trying to find my way without actually looking in any particular direction so to avoid looking at the naked Dutchies. I finally put on my rented bathrobe, which I figured was acceptable since the thing was verplicht (mandatory), and decided to head in the only reasonable direction I could fathom: a glass door across the hall. I took off at a New Yorker’s pace and saw, around the corner from a shower stall on my left, a wooden door. It was a Finnish sauna. Something familiar! In I went but I had the urge to immediately turn on my heels again. Naked folks were lying around like walruses in the sun. It was like being at a pubic hair convention. Summing up courage, I laid down my soaking wet towel, lied on it, and closed my eyes. When in Rome…

But I soon got used to the place. The upside of having poor vision is that I can’t see details unless I intentionally look at something rather closely so it wasn’t hard to eventually ignore all the genitalia (besides, just about everyone there was 30 years my senior). What was hard was fighting my OCD tendencies in order to get into the beautiful pool, which was surrounded by fabulously tacky Romanesque decorations. I normally will only take a bath after thoroughly scrubbing the tub with disinfectant soap and even then I can only get in in my bikini or underwear. But the day called for fearlessness so I shed my robe and walked down the steps into the blue pool feeling like Minerva and praying to God there was enough chlorine in that water to kill Ebola.

The water was delightful! Splash, splash, splash. Splash, splash – wait, that dude’s staring at me. I made my way to the jacuzzi in the corner and sat among half a dozen happy retirees, closing my eyes as the water bubbled all around. Then I felt someone staring at me and opened my eyes. The dude from the pool was sitting right next to me and glancing my way a bit too much. He cannot possibly be Dutch, I thought, but in any case it’s a good idea to keep your enemies close so I struck up conversation with the creep, which didn’t cause him to avert his eyes as I had hoped. Turned out he was an English government worker and that he had decided to explore the sauna with me.

Ladies, if you find it uncomfortable when a creep stares at your boobs during conversation, please re-read the introductory paragraph to this story. Were I at a bar I’d have told him I wasn’t interested and to fuck off, but I wasn’t really sure about the protocol for shaking off dweebs when you’re naked among strangers. Well, turns out putting your enjoyable day on hold and sitting outside in your bathrobe does the job. Buitenlanders… I thought, or, Pft, foreigners...

Some five hours after arriving at the sauna I was still not ready to leave but it was time to go watch the sunset at the beach. Between my many showers I had passed some bowls full of colorful powder that I learned were scrubbing salts. Scrub, scrub. How to scrub one’s feet without bending over. Scrub, scrub. A group of retirees scrubbing themselves near me were speaking in hushed tones. “Ask her,” a woman said. “Do you think she’ll mind?” another replied. “I don’t think so, just ask,” said a man. The second woman turned to me, showing me her palms freshly coated in yellow salts: “Would you like me to scrub your back?” she kindly asked. Hells yeah! I turned around and this older lady scrubbed my whole back. Awesome! Her group walked away as another man approached so I offered to scrub his back to pass on the kindness. Everyone naked! Yet no second intentions on any(Dutch)one’s part.

In the locker room I didn’t care who was naked or dressed. I was too happy to care. On so many birthdays I’d worried about what to wear and yet I’d just spent half of my birthday in the most comfortable and hottest attire God and my parents could have given me: my own skin.

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How to Spend Your Birthday in Your Birthday Suit – Part 1

It was that time of year again, when everyone over 21 goes, “Oh my gosh! I’m getting so old!” Or maybe that was just me on my birthday. “I’m so old!” I’d whine and a minute later, when I still hadn’t dropped dead of old age, I’d shut up and move on with my life.

On my last birthday I decided to celebrate by taking a freelancer’s day off and doing whatever I felt like, but with a Dutch twist. “Circle party?!” you might ask in panic if you’ve lived in the Netherlands. No, the other Dutch way: by getting things for free! Taking to the internet, I found out that you can get lots of things for free on your birthday all around the Netherlands, just not in Amsterdam (darn!) but I came across a gem: a sauna in a city not too far away that lets you in for free on your birthday. Oh, yeah! I made a verplicht (mandatory) reservation and showed up right on time with my verplicht towel and flip flops.

I’d heard that although one must be naked in a Dutch sauna it’s ok to wear a bikini bottom if you really want to but as I got ready to head out of the dressing room in my tiny attire a woman said to me that she didn’t think I could go in like that. Lo and behold, the guy at reception informed me that, yes, naked is indeed verplicht, even if you’re wearing a Brazilian bikini. As I re-entered the dressing room I came upon two middle-aged men, buck naked. I was mortified. The trouble is you can’t help but look, I mean, it’s there. Anyway, turned out the dressing room was mixed so I had to just get down to my birthday suit before heading off into the sauna, which was, of course, mixed, too.

Passing a beautiful stone lounge furnished with leather couches and dark wood tables, where people quietly relaxed in plush bathrobes with drinks in hand, I opened The Door. Naked people were everywhere. I thought about running out but no, I could not turn back. In my desperation I managed to hang up my bathrobe and wrap myself in my towel all at once, feeling like all eyes were on me and keeping my head down. Had I properly shaved my legs? Was I, you know, proper for public display? Was there something growing out of my back that I couldn’t see? The place wasn’t like the American sauna’s I’m used to, it wasn’t just a sauna room, it was a complex that I couldn’t yet take in because I couldn’t look at all the naked people at once.

I rushed to the closest possible door and as I opened it my glasses completely fogged up. I was in the steam room. The man at reception had told me that sitting on your towel is verplicht at all times so I put my towel down and lounged in the fog until I could barely breathe. As you might imagine my towel was completely soaked by the time I walked out. Two elderly women sitting in a shallow pool next to the steam room were curiously looking at me so I turned to them with my mediocre Dutch and asked for instructions because, clearly, I needed them. “Well, you’re not supposed to put your towel down in the steam room,” one of them said, “it’s wet in there.”

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