October 2013


Song of the Open Road
BY WALT WHITMAN
1
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

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I copied the opening lines of Whitman’s poem after a conversation with Beth about spirituality and poetry, so it is incredibly ironic that when the time came to publish this post, she and Wilma decided to go slow up the mountain to Villefranca. So I’m here with just Toby in the most unusual albergue I’ve yet come across, a bit cold, but the welcome to the ten pilgrims staying has been warm, the dinner amazing and the dedication to Santiago at Grace very moving, eight of us holding hands around a simple but delicious meal.

Now we are made up of Dianne, the Frenchwoman who is in her 70s and just indomitable; Tobias, whose army marching songs from the Bundeswehr got me through the last hour; Lena from Salzburg; Iiris from Finland who works in Belgium; and Patrick, Australian but living and working in Ireland as a barista, a very clever young man, I think, finding his way in life and using the Camino to make decisions about what comes next. There are others in the dorm,but we were the ones gathered around the table.

It has been a most beautiful day. The countryside is magnificent, the microclimate of Bierza, with the grapes for the famous red wine not trellised but growing naturally upon the red earth. Our trip would have been much easier had we not decided to have a long morning tea and then visit the Templar castle in Pontferrada.

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Toby and I then compounded the error by having our usual radler at a bar on the way up the hill, but we still had five kilometres and it was 5.30. Iiris greeted us as we put on our packs, and so we walked through the gathering twilight, completely stuffed and wondering when the hell the trail would level out and the village appear. The orchards and grapevines were perhaps not completely appreciated as we wondered what our accommodation would be like. 7pm at the albergue is OK but it means no washing and not much in the way if time to reflect.

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It is starting to get very cold and the night will involve blankets. I’m incredibly grateful for the generous presents that allowed me to make this trip, and on the eve of my birthday it seems good to celebrate them, as most of them were birthday presents. Liam game me my sleeping bag, and it has been perfect: the right weight and the right warmth, with only tonight in La Fenix presenting any challenges. The sticks are something that I would never be without on a walk again and I would heartily recommend them to anyone who carries a lack for more than ten kilometres, so thank you, Dominic: your old man thinks of you many times a day, particularly going uphill. Paula was more than generous with the boots, the fabulous Scarpas, and my misgivings about spending so much on footwear were completely wrong. I have no blisters and little foot pain, touch wood, and I am almost alone on the Camino in my luck. Good socks and good boots are the recipe for the simple happiness of the trail.

Tomorrow is the biggest challenge for me of the whole trip. There are two massive climbs, but the last one leads into Galicia and it is downhill to Santiago. I will be on the trail for at least six, if not seven, hours and I know that physically, it will be as demanding as it will be mentally. But my heart is very light. If I can overcome this, my journey with St James is going to be ultimately successful. Each step may not be a prayer — there are a few times when I ask God, why are you doing this to me, and I instantly realise that I am doing this to myself — but each is offered up as an act of faith in the life I have been given. It could end tomorrow, it could end soon, I could be, like Frost, telling this ages and ages past, 80 and more caminos achieved, but I am becoming aware that I have made my dent in the universe (to quote Steve Jobs) and it is a dent that has tended to bring happiness, rather than the alternative, to others. And the Camino’s gift to me? A recognition that I am person of the heart, at last (or perhaps at last I recognise it). I have never been alone on the trail unless I have chosen to be alone. Newman’s splendid phrase, heart speaks to heart, is never more true than on the Camino.

I am sitting here after dinner, drinking an electrolyte solution given to me by Beth, rubbing Voltaren into my sore muscles as suggested by Terry. I do some stretches like Wilma suggested. My valuables are always with me, like Kristen told me to do. None of them are here, but their generosity remains with me.

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The long day has ended and we are in one of the prettiest towns I have ever been in. We started the day with a glorious dawn as we left the albergue, run by volunteers from the Confraternity of St James. Rabanal is the first real mountain town I have seen in Leon, but the old hands are saying that, even compared to the Pyrenees, this is beautiful countryside.

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The path led steeply into the mountains and, as we climbed higher, the clouds rolled in. We walked to Foncebada in the mist, past ruined buildings and deserted farms.

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On everyone’s minds today was the momentous event, arriving at the Crux de Ferro. The various groups of friends began to divide as each reflected on what the Cross might mean to each of them. You will remember the seen in the film and the significance of leaving a stone or a message at the foot of the cross. At Foncebada, an interesting couple run a kind of a cafe where we refueled for the mountains. Beth and Terry, Wisconsin girls, said they could smell snow. You didn’t need to smell it — the temperature was below zero and the wind-chill pretty bad. I normally walked in shorts and a shirt, to everyone’s amazement, but I had long pants and my big technical jacket on today.

It is very hard to describe the experience of the iron cross. For many, it is the climax of their journey, because laying a pebble has become associated with laying down a burden. Brierely, author of our guidebook, says that leaving a stone is just an act of love and blessing. For many, it seems to be an act of dedication, often to a lost loved-one, the high point of a journey undertaken in tribute. Wives, children, husbands, fathers, I saw pictures of them all and prayed that the journey had brought the pilgrim peace to grieving heart.

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I prayed for many at the cross, and then tried to honour other pilgrims by spending a moment reading their tributes as my act of love. I did not want to leave a stone because I have not felt burdened on my pilgrimage. This journey is a journey into myself, and I feel no sense of this being a burden but more an act of acceptance and opening to God and to the people I meet.

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In the photo, you can see Beth chanting beside the church. Tobias was well ahead and others had done the trip at a different pace. I left them and walked, turning each step into a prayer. I wanted to chant, but singing Crux Fidelis while going uphill didn’t work, unless I was going to need a Packer whacker at the top.

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We dragged into Acebo during the afternoon, most of us behind time because of individual devotions at the Cross. No one really travels, together of the Camino unless they have made a pact to begin with, so this fluid set of relationships, which I find extraordinary and beautiful, exists in the private world of only a few people. It is fragile, it may not exist tomorrow or even at the end of the day, but it makes each meal a celebration and each buen camino a farewell.

I came down the mountain on very rough mountain paths, tired and focused on my feet and emotional after the Crux de Ferro.ntime was good for getting into Molineseca on time, but There was Tobias at a the bottom of the hill outside a country cafe, insisting that the afternoon was right for a radler, or cerveica con limon as it is in Spain.

It was late evening as we came down the hill to the village. Wilma and Beth had caught us, shared a drink, chatted with the owner and, evening though the light was golden, hurried with me down the hill. The path here is poorly marked and we got bushed for a bit, although I did have a good idea of our location, thanks to the iPhone’s GPS. We were bushed, and the aubergue was in the far side if town. The best hotel in town had a four berth room for €15 a head, so the four of us walked in. The manager gave us a room, washed our clothes cheaply and, after we returned from a really good pilgrim meal, sat at the bar and talked while we organised nightcaps.

Our feet were sore but our hearts were very full. We had covered well over thirty kilometres on what I think is the third hardest day. The evening walking in to town was so beautiful, it made the expression “golden hour” completely inadequate.

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I’m sitting in a noisy common room, the fire in the stove is burning, the clothes are drying in racks because is has been so cold and clammy outside, there are fourteen if us speaking five languages.

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Tobias and I masterminded a shared meal for the group, a vegetarian stew that grew out if the fresh and tinned veggies at the local shop, a donated head of broccoli, six bottles of wine, some chorizo on the side and lots of bread. Laura from the Netherlands spent three-quarters of an hour cooking chocolate pancakes. We have all contributed five Euro in total, Terry from Wisconsin has dashed back and forward to the shop for bits and pieces and to choose fresh herbs from the albergue garden. We crowded together in the kitchen, talking and chopping veggies while I cooked the stew. What a triumph, and how much fun to do.

I said to someone during the day that the walking is a challenge, finishing a joy,the afternoon a pleasure and the evening a joy. In three nights I have not wanted for company. It is only when the lights are down and I am alone in my sleeping bag that I miss the life I have left and Paula’s precious presence. This is life away from life because, as we say to each other, ‘your camino is your camino’. No one can tell you the rules, no one can tell you what will happen on the day, who you will meet. I have already given up making plans, even for breakfast. You walk out the door and stop when you feel like it. You look for yellow arrows and follow them in faith. You bless those who make the paths. You curse the hills, give thanks for the poles, sink into the landscape and lose yourself in the moment.

The motives for being here range from the shallow to the incredibly deep. I walk by myself but in the last two days mostly with Bianca, Maria, Tobias, Beth, Terry and Kristen. They are rich people, in that their motivation for working ranges from affirming friendship, to coming to terms with life challenges, to asserting femininity, to a desire to express a religious faith by serving others on the camino.

The road is always there. It is the least interesting and most important part of our individual endeavour and shared lives. Each day we are anxious to set out. Each hour some other part of the body hurts. In the end, meeting one’s needs in the moment are the most important thing unless another person needs you or your help. At the end of the day, when the encounter with the road is over, recovery is as much the interpersonal, spiritual encounter as it is the rest and sleep.

There Is A Candle In Your Heart
— Rumi

There is a candle in your heart,
ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul,
ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?
You feel the separation
from the Beloved.
Invite Him to fill you up,
embrace the fire.
Remind those who tell you otherwise that
Love
comes to you of its own accord,
and the yearning for it
cannot be learned in any school.

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This won’t reach the internet tonight because the wifi is down in the hostel, but I want to write something tonight even though I am crazy tired after walking nearly 35 km in about 8 hours. The last three km were torture, but I finished with no blisters and only on little hotspot that seems to be ok now after dinner.

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I walked the day with a companera — a companion for the day. She is from Wisconsin, just 50 and is an ex-academic at one of those crossroads. She started in St-Jean, and knew how challenging the day would be, so we paced each other and made it. Had I rushed on, I think I would have struggled to make the distance. You need something in that last hour to get you through the pain barrier. We talked all day and it helped. I told her we would meet in Santiago and I would shout her a drink to here if she had resolved her dilemmas! Dinner was good fun with a German, a Swedish girl, my companera and an Aussie girl from Melbourne. She thinks she may have met Rachel, from the tour.

Last night was a great meal at the albergue in Villar de Mazarife. Four courses, with the highlight a veggie paella and several bottles of red. Tonight is not so good as the municipal albergue is noisy and full and the menu peregrino not as good. But bed and board for €15? I can do that!

It has been pretty country, mostly country lanes but more and more hill paths as we move into the country. If I have time in the morning I will find the pictures. Tomorrow, I want to set out alone and see what the road brings. Actually, I know. It’s the mountains. Temperature drops, altitude increases, rain forecast. A challenge, but I have already learnt a lot…

4 Blessed are they that dwell in thy house; * they will be alway praising thee.
5 Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; * in whose heart are thy ways.
6 Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well; * and the pools are filled with water.
7 They will go from strength to strength, * and unto the God of gods appeareth every one of them in Sion.

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I’m sitting in a bar, and there is no cliche coming (if you are as old as I am, you can remember the opening lines of Skyhooks’ immortal classic, “Why don’t you all get f*#*#d”, and if you are much older, you can’t)! The first real day on the Way has finished, I have no blisters but my legs are sore, but nothing that a beer and a bed won’t fix. The bed is sorted, at St Anthony de Padua Albergue — €21 for bed, dinner and breakfast, so beat that, TripAdvisor — and the beer is in the only bar in town. This is fun!

I’m surrounded by all these country blokes playing their Saturday afternoon cards and dominoes. There is only a soundscape as I can’t decode a word. It’s the local idiom and it is fast. The dominoes are crashing down, the talk over the cards is sharply focused. These guys, for there isn’t a woman to be found, do this every Saturday and have been coming here their whole lives. Think small country pub, without the TAB take people’s attention away from each other. Bless ’em.

Outside it’s at last blue sky, bathing this extraordinarily ancient church tower in light. The whole edifice is just stork nests, and I have not idea if mass is an option. The statue of pilgrim St James sits outside, and I’m wondering if he ever got sore knees following Jesus up and down the road — depending on which Gospel you choose to read — to Jerusalem. Did Jesus get sore knees? Probably not, he was dead at thirty-three, so my knees have seen a hell of a lot more mileage. God, make my resurrection knees titanium!

I’ve walked the scales of Leon’s industrial area from my soles, the scab of our prosperity. In the grey light of morning, I walked up hill and called upon the name of The Lord as the drizzle came down and forced me into waterproofs. Amidst the moors and fallows I welcomed the sunshine and finished the journey in my shirtsleeves. I haven’t seen ten pilgrims all day. Yet, in spite of my meditative footsteps, I still don’t have an answer to today’s existential question. Where do you go for a slash in the summertime, when there no bloody trees on the track and 1500 pilgrims at day?

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The news is showing the exploits of the latest hero matadors, and I’ve probably more patience with the violence of the bullring that I did before I got here. In one hand he holds the cape, in the other the sword. The consequence of this game of life is death, probably for the bull, but he has a fighting chance, as do we all. The Spanish are at least honest in the consequences of their games, so much more real than that ultimate confection, American Football. Life is the moments we snatch before death — at the table opposite, the eyes are down, the old blokes are terribly focused, the dominoes are tapped with increasing tension. With a crash, it is over…

This is my life and my pilgrimage. I have control over neither of them, in the end. Open hands and open hearts, that’s all.

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The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage
— Sir Walter Raleigh

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Blood must be my body’s balmer,
No other balm will there be given,
Whilst my soul, like a white palmer,
Travels to the land of heaven;
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
And there I’ll kiss
The bowl of bliss,
And drink my eternal fill
On every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before,
But after it will ne’er thirst more;
And by the happy blissful way
More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,
That have shook off their gowns of clay,
And go apparelled fresh like me.
I’ll bring them first
To slake their thirst,
And then to taste those nectar suckets,
At the clear wells
Where sweetness dwells,
Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.

And when our bottles and all we
Are fill’d with immortality,
Then the holy paths we’ll travel,
Strew’d with rubies thick as gravel,
Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors,
High walls of coral, and pearl bowers.

From thence to heaven’s bribeless hall
Where no corrupted voices brawl,
No conscience molten into gold,
Nor forg’d accusers bought and sold,
No cause deferr’d, nor vain-spent journey,
For there Christ is the king’s attorney,
Who pleads for all without degrees,
And he hath angels, but no fees.
When the grand twelve million jury
Of our sins and sinful fury,
’Gainst our souls black verdicts give,
Christ pleads his death, and then we live.
Be thou my speaker, taintless pleader,
Unblotted lawyer, true proceeder,
Thou movest salvation even for alms,
Not with a bribed lawyer’s palms.
And this is my eternal plea
To him that made heaven, earth, and sea,
Seeing my flesh must die so soon,
And want a head to dine next noon,
Just at the stroke when my veins start and spread,
Set on my soul an everlasting head.
Then am I ready, like a palmer fit,
To tread those blest paths which before I writ.

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It’s Chaucer’s birthday: how extraordinary!

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So Priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

After yesterday’s downpour, I was hoping for better weather so I could scope the town and walk some of the camino. It held of for most of the day, but every now and then a shower came down to remind me how miserable it could really be if the weather turned nasty.

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I walked down to the bullfighting arena (sponsored by Pauliner, no less) and found my way to the first camino marker. Very tasteful, I’m sure, but I’m assured that the markers out in the country are a good deal more obvious! Leon, once you are on track and in the old town, is camino-central. Sometimes it is being like in another world, or taken back in time.

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The cathedral was the marvel that Caz said it would be, the little churches along the way all had their interest.

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At the Cathedral, I got my first stamp on my Credential, the first of many, I hope.

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I did the local thing for lunch — beer and tapas standing — and had a bilingual chat with a bloke whose Westie I had admired. He asked me to hold the little fellow while he got his drink and tapas, and I found him a picture of Merlin to compare.

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In the evening, I had a couple of beers while writing up the blog, then walked down to the Bendictine Monastery for compline and the Pilgrims Blessing. It wasn’t until 9.45 pm, so I was pretty hungry, but Mother gave us the pilgrims blessing (nice touch). One of the other nuns gave us a talk before hand — in Spanish — but I heard enough to understand her message: the real pilgrimage is the way of the ‘corazon’, the heart. Familiar words.

Dinner in a restaurant on the Plaza Mayor, nerves, difficulty sleeping. Must be time for a pilgrimage.

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The RENFE took us rapidly (ah, the joys of alliteration) to Madrid, so once again we curse the lack of imagination demonstrated by politicians in Australia of all persuasions and at all levels of government. A brief conversation in Paula’s special version of Spanglish — in which she is becoming a highly effective if slightly eclectic communicator — and we were on our way to meet the manager of the apartment we had for four nights.

If there is one thing we have demonstrated, it’s that staying in one place and day trips is, where possible, much to be preferred than racing all over the place and living out of suitcases. For me, especially, staying in Madrid means a chance to make sure I am ready and relaxed before the Camino — if I am honest, I am nervous about the first days, getting into the routine, making the whole thing work at a level where I can immerse myself in the journey and not become distracted with administration, the bane of my existence.

Our afternoon reconnaissance included finding Plaza del Sol, but not much more, but Paula the indefatigable discovered dinner in an unexpected place; and so we stumbled our way into La Latina, surely the most amazing place in any major city. Imagine a fairly run-down neighbourhood, not quite at the ‘clutch your handbag dearie’ stage, but getting there. Turn left two streets and you are in the middle of wall-to-wall tabernas and tapas bars, with people spilling out on the pavement and crowding the tables. We ended up, thanks to Saint Trip Advisor, in the cellar of a nondescript little joint eating plain but delicious tapas. Wow, and cheap.

I should say something about the wine at this point, because we are doing a wine tour in a couple of days. Paula is a great barometer of wine, because she has a very low tolerance of artifice — oak it very lightly, or she will turn up her nose, present mutton as lamb and she is not a happy vegemite. She has been most impressed with Spanish wine in general, and latched on to Verdejo, often from Ruejo. Blow me down, if it doesn’t have 15% Sav Blanc on further investigation.

Anyway, to bed, impressed with Madrid in General, although it is a very different kind of place from Seville. This is España central, with all the pain of the GFC very obvious, but everyone seems to be trying to dig themselves out. The next morning found us on a metro with two guide dogs; one a more mature black lab working with a gentleman, the other a young golden retriever with an older lady. It was nice to see the Goldie going though its paces, but blow me down if it didn’t ask for a wrestle as soon as the respective owners came to a halt.

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The world’s loveliest dog, and this one was all about love. Every time she stopped, it was all about getting loved for all her hard work!

In the morning, Liam went off to do a bike tour and we met our guide, Tatiana — as we discover later, Russian-born but living in Spain with her Spanish husband. This was a great walking tour: there were only three of us and we went at a nice pace, with lots of time for photos and questions. The other group member — well, of course she was Australian, of course she had just finished the Camino, and she had lost her bike tour. Sometimes life seems to play games…

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The lovely Tatiana gave us the low down on all the best bits between Puerte del Sol, , Plaza Mayor and Mercador San Miguel. Madrid is not old, indeed, it’s eminence basically springs from Philippe and the Hapsburgs, but it is rich in history. In reality, there was not much here before the 1600s. I can here the voices saying that it can thus boast many years over Sydney, but we are comparing it to the Old World rather than the New. There is only a moorish fort, not the forests of pillars at the Mezquite. Yet it is very Spanish — the constant refrain we heard from Tatiana and others was of projects in Madrid that were stalled, curtailed or abandoned because of lack of money. It is interesting to compare the fruits of Spanish Imperialism to that of the Second British Empire (post-America). The gold of the Americas and the Indies was pissed away in useless wars in Europe, and the blood of the Hapsburgs grew thinner with inbreeding. Dear old queen Vickie: she may have carried the haemophilia gene, but she gave it to every royal house in Europe before she was through!

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The tour gave us a bit of everything, food, architecture, food, history… did I say food?

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Around the Plaza Major were some lovely street-scapes, but finding Restaurante Botin was the real highlight. We were booked in for Wednesday night before Tatiana could say “hola, buenos dias”!

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You only had to take one look at them cooking suckling pig to know why (lo siento, vegetarionos).

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In the afternoon, it was the Prada, wandering around a special exhibition on Velasquez before the mandatory visit to the Goyas. The Dos de Mayo and Tres de Mayo paintings were more than I expected, but I completely failed when Paula granted me one last wish and I, fool that I am, asked to see the Hieronymus Bosch tryptich. Any attempt at artistic authority completely lost, alas… Help me, Cervantes!

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