“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man, nor soil to bury a man,” said one of Oliver Cromwell’s generals. And while I couldn’t give a flying fig what any of those sociopaths thought, the quote did enter my mind as we drove through our first early hours in Iceland, the sun melting the frost off the black, volcanic rock covering as far as the eye could see—rock, as it happens, that had been strewn by forces down deep and not all that long ago.
It was like Frodo and Samwise Gamgee setting sights on Mordor for the first time, pondering if they might ever see the shire again or partake in a drink that comes in pints. In fact, I recall wanting to film a little humorous video on our phones with me as the somewhat portly sidekick to the hero of the story, ready to ferry him on my shoulders into the dreaded mountain, but the other half was quite tired and not in the mood for antics of any sort.
What, in the name of all that’s holy am I talking about? Well, as it turns out, we traveled to Iceland—the land of fire and ice—to see what it was all about. And we were not disappointed. When we landed, there wasn’t a wisp of light, it being the end of April. We landed somewhere in the region of 6 a.m. and it wouldn’t be long before the sun began to show itself. Iceland, you’ll find out, either sees a lot of dark or a lot of light. We were on the light side.
Do not mess with these people. I’m pretty sure this sign is instructing Reykjavic motorists to drive over families.
So, what was it like? What if I told you that I had the best ramen noodles of my life, felt the heat of molten lava filling up the room and sat in freezing temperatures inside natural hot spring pools by the ocean, watching birds play on the stones, the stark mountains in the distance? In a word, it was magical.
The other half and I decided that it was high time we eschewed our usual travels of shopping, eating and drinking and branch out to something more earthy, a place where we could be at one with nature, so to speak.
Our first stop, in the wee hours was the “Bridge Between Continents,” where North America meets Europe. You can stand with one foot on each continent and momentarily become king of the world (or something similar). This, I might add, was the height of Mordor, for all of you Hobbit fans.
The country was dealt a devastating blow after a volcano erupted in 2010. You might remember it. Airports around the world shut down due to ashen clouds and the economy of Iceland was in free fall. The country took on a new strategy. They tried to lure tourists with the promise of living the outdoor life and as you might have discerned, their gamble paid off. Iceland has become a huge tourist destination.
The citizens are openly appreciative, with one hotel employee in Reykjavik telling an apologetic tourist such as myself that we saved their country. What a lovely take on the situation thought I.
Iceland is teeming with waterfalls. We happened upon this one, Skógafoss, between Reykjavic and Vik.
For those of us of Irish descent, I need to make a caveat. Iceland, although it sounds an awful lot like Ireland, is most definitely not Ireland. Expect very few corner pubs. And if you’re a drinker, plan accordingly. We stayed in the picturesque town of Vik for several days and assumed that alcohol would flow as it does in most of Europe. It most certainly doesn’t. (Hint: Stock up at the airport.)
We purchased a bottle of wine at the local grocery and when we returned to our most decidedly beautiful hotel room afterwards, we were beguiled to discover how much it tasted like grape juice. The reason it tasted like grape juice is that it was grape juice. Upon further examination, we realized that there were no alcohol sales in town until Tuesday (it was Saturday) unless we wanted to make a 60-mile jaunt to a “nearby” shop. But that’s neither here nor there.
Vik lies beneath a glacier, which provides much splendor, but all that frozen water comes with a catch. When the volcano underneath said ice erupted in 1918, the majority of fatalities actually came from the rushing waters of the melted glacier and not the lava.
That gruesomeness aside, we enjoyed a lava show in Vik, which is highly recommended. The company name is a bit hard to remember…what was it again? Oh yes, Lava Show. They heat actual lava rock to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, then slowly ooze the lava into a darkened room of spectators, heating the vicinity up considerably. The affable representative noted that if the volcano were to erupt, all of our mobile phones would alert us to the quite unsettling fact that we had a half hour to get to higher ground. Ha ha, thought I. Wonderful stuff.
From Vik, we headed north to Geysir, where erupting waters awaited. Once again, you can imagine a Tolkien-like landscape with waters boiling on the ground and geysers erupting every few minutes. I could finish an entire column on this area, but space is short and suffice it to say, Mother Nature is awesome.
On our way out of Geysir, we stopped at Hvammsvík Hot Springs, a set of naturally heated pools, lying on the beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. What a gem. After a freezing jaunt from the shower areas to the outside pools, visitors can submerge in one of eight open-air pools, the mountains and ocean offering a backdrop, and in our case, only four other people to contend with. Pure heaven. (And quite a bit less touristed than the infamous Blue Lagoon.)
My man, Leif Erikson looking ever forward.
From there, we made straight away for the capital city of Reykjavik, with its hot dog stands and Leif Erikson statues. It’s quite a small city, but we tourists were more than happy to fill in the empty spaces. Should you try the hot dog stands? Yes. Should you visit Ramen Momo? Most definitely. Are waterfalls as common as traffic jams in the States? They certainly are.
A serving of Tantanmen from Ramen Momo in Reykjavic. This was a bowl of pure gastronomical joy.
But once again, my space here is limited. How is visiting Iceland even realistic, you ask, when Ireland awaits with all of its charm? As it happens, Icelandair allows travelers to stopover anywhere from one to seven days if they’re continuing on to Europe—for free. So you can book a flight to Dublin on the airline and choose to stop for a few days in the land of fire and ice.
What’s the downside? I don’t have an answer for that one.
A cousin recently returned from holidays in Barcelona, Spain with her family, raving about the sun and culture and it brought to mind my own treks through the European hotspot. It also started me thinking about the benefits of Barcelona, over her own hometown in Northern Ireland. She lives in Derrynoose, a “suburb” of Keady, Co. Armagh, so I decided to see how Barcelona stacks up against our ancestral home, a place my father referred to as the “hub of the universe.”
Ryan Air flies direct between Dublin and Barcelona, the trip only taking a bit over two hours and a cursory check on barebones prices shows roundtrip tickets at $164 for middle of the week travel.
One won’t find that kind of price from the States. A trip at the same time of year from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Barcelona will run you $1,152 for a nonstop flight of over eight hours. (Direct to Dublin was $668 at the time of this writing).
Comparing these two vastly different destinations is no easy task, but you’ll receive nothing but 110 percent from iIrish columnists. Let’s jump in, shall we?
I’ll start with the caveat that the great Spanish city indeed sees more sun, so I’ll give that one to Barcelona, but seeing as how my entire family goes from pale white straight to cancer, I’m fine with them having that particular title.
Sun: Advantage Barcelona
How do the populations compare, you ask? Well, here Keady has a slight advantage with a smidgen over 3,000 people, compared to Barcelona’s 1.6 million. I’ve done a quick calculation based on numbers I’m just making up, and if you stacked Barcelona’s vehicles across the entire town of Keady, you’d have a scrap of metal that reaches to the moon.
Additionally, Barcelona is jam-packed with tourists. The only tourists I’ve ever seen in Keady were ones traveling with me.
Population: Advantage Keady
Barcelona boasts more tourist sites than does Keady, so we’ll need to select a couple to compare. For Spain, I have chosen La Sagrada Família, an ostentatious church that isn’t even finished after 141 years. I think that says as much about the Spanish work ethic as anything else. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, it’s a wonderful example of the marriage of Gothic and Art Nouveau, with an impressive number of spires and probably even more pews inside.
As you can see, La Sagrada Família, left, boasts a great number of spires, but the structure still isn’t finished after 141 years. The monument in Keady, right, was completed in a jiffy and has a catchy song written about it.
By comparison, the monument in the center of Keady (literally the hub of the hub of the universe) has a very catchy song written about it:
Is the monument where it used to be?
Are the boys all there?
Do the girls go skipping around the ground, where it’s nice and fair?
Is the market house where it used to be?
Sure, is everything all right?
What would I give to be with you
In Keady town tonight?
Let’s see Gaudí top that!
The monument also boasts several spires and was erected by the residents in 1871 (so even older than the Spanish church) in honor of William Kirk, who brought the linen industry to the area.
This was a tough decision, so I’m going to call this one a draw, with both monuments about equal when considered in comparison to the vastness of the universe.
Tourist sites: Draw
Unique advantages: One of my favorite television characters was Manuel, from Fawlty Towers. He was from Barcelona. Advantage Barcelona; The Tommy Makem Arts and Community Centre resides in Keady. To my knowledge, Barcelona has nothing named after my father. Advantage Keady. Likewise, my cousin, Eddie, owned a butcher shop in Keady. He never owned one anywhere in Spain. Advantage: Keady.
Speaking of Eddie, he and other family members rebuilt an old cow barn on ancestral land and turned it into arguably the best Irish session house in the world, labeling it Tossie’s. Gaudí erected Casa Milá (or La Padrera) from scratch and the architecture is world-renowned. It admittedly has more going for it visually than Tossie’s, but everyone I know who has been to Tossie’s has said they had the time of their lives. Casa Milá is just really incredible.
Casa Milá, top, has a slight visual advantage, but I dare you to spend a few hours in my cousins’ former cow barn, current session house, below, and not have a better time.
New/rebuilt structures: Advantage Keady (Derrynoose).
One area of contention in this great comparison is found at midday. While the people of Northern Ireland are drudging through another work day, dreaming of the time they can head home to the telly and frozen pizza, the residents of Spain are catching up on a little rest. Yes, the siesta is a real thing. Expect, even in large cities like Barcelona, to find shops and restaurants closed for a few hours so workers can recharge their batteries, so to speak.
Both Irish and Spanish cultures seem to savor nighttime, mornings not so much. The dinner crowds in both countries (I’m combining Ireland and Northern Ireland for simplicity) don’t even really start appearing until seven p.m. When I was younger, I couldn’t imagine a different way of life. Nowadays, my mind is a fog any time after eight p.m. I’ll admit that sometimes I’m jealous of those who can still remain alert into the wee hours. It’s always something I try to muscle through when visiting new places.
So as far as siestas, I suppose I’d say I’m a fan. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful example of the breadth of experiences you can have in different cultures. It’s why we travel, isn’t it?
Sleeping in the middle of the day: Advantage Barcelona
Well, I think I’ve proven that Keady and Barcelona are far more equal than it would appear at first glance. And for the record, you now know why I don’t have a job that anyone would consider “important.”
What a long, strange trip it’s been. Twenty-twenty-two has come to a close and to celebrate, I’m offering up my memories of this tumultuous, news-laden catastrophe of a year. So, place a seat belt around your head, because I’m about to take your eyes on the ride of their life.
It’s a difficult task narrowing down a year’s worth of news stories to a single column. I could do ninety inches on the James Webb telescope without breaking a sweat, but the editor at iIrish is renowned for his hard-as-nails approach to columnists. And thusly, I must stay in my lane.
Let’s do this chronologically.
Prince Andrew is stripped of his military titles and charities. Irish residents, some of whom have a slight inclination away from monarchies, issue a collective yawn.
Russia invades Ukraine, cementing Vladimir Putin’s role as most hated person on the planet.
Piel Island, off the English coast, announces that it is seeking a new monarch. The new monarch will be in charge of the island’s crumbling castle and its 300-year-old pub. He or she must also swear an oath to be a good smoker and drinker and “to give anyone found dead on the sands free refuge in the pub.” An iIrish columnist was reputedly denied the throne.
Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the ninety-fourth Academy Awards (the Oscars). It was the slap heard ‘round the world.
Twitter agrees to sell itself to Elon Musk. Tesla shareholders agree that it’s no big deal as long as he doesn’t offer up any controversial opinions. Wallets are then emptied out.
A scientist at the University of West England announces that he has concluded a study of mushrooms and determined that they can communicate using electrical impulses. Apparently, their vocabulary is up to 50 words, which legally allows them to hold accounts on Twitter. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg simultaneously nod their approval.
Sinn Féin becomes the largest party after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Several people passing by Ian Paisley’s grave claim to have heard elongated groans coming from the ground. This has not been corroborated by iIrish, but we’re working on it.
Nothing officially happened in June.
Two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner pleads guilty to marijuana charges in Russia. At that same moment, both Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg bend over in pain sensing a strange disturbance in the force.
The James Webb Space Telescope produced its first images, stunning the scientific community. Astronomers explained the need for such a telescope, noting that since there was so little intelligent life on earth, they needed to look elsewhere. The search continues.
The F.B.I. executes a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago and there’s nothing I can add here from any angle that won’t flood my inbox with anger.
For the first time Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. The 2021 census showed 45.7 percent of the population are now Catholic, and 43.5 percent are protestant. Once again, several people passing by Ian Paisley’s grave claim to have heard groans coming from the ground.
Liz Truss is named the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister. The tabloid The Daily Star announces a contest to see if she will outlast a head of lettuce. She does not. (I didn’t even have to make this one up).
In Panama, a $1.5 million prototype floating home plunges into the water during its unveiling ceremony. Simultaneously, a cutting-edge engineer is seeking “new opportunities in the job market.”
The prosecution of Soldier F resumes for the role in murdering two men on Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972. The charges had been dropped in July 2021. The soldier also faced five counts of attempted murder.
President Joe Biden announces he will pardon all prior federal offenses for simple marijuana possession. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg spontaneously erupt in muffled giggles.
The other half and I traveled to Denmark and Sweden. This isn’t a tidbit you’re likely to run across in the New York Times or on the BBC, but iIrish delves a little deeper into some subjects than those rags. Feel free to peruse my column on the trip in this esteemed journal, which pitted Denmark against Ireland, with some remarkable results. Take that, so called other news outlets!
The midterm elections surprise pollsters and lead everyone in the country to ask why anyone pays attention to polls anymore.
Experts declare the latest Covid variant XBB.1.5 is spreading like wildfire, leaving people worldwide excited for 2023, because it can’t get any worse. Can it?
Sure, it consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries on the planet, but what does Denmark have that Ireland doesn’t? Well, for one thing, they have a royal family, which obviously isn’t anything to be envied, but the differences don’t stop there, oh no they don’t dear reader.
So, having just set foot back home in Amerikay from a quick trip over to the Land of Danes, I will now provide for you a full comparison of the two countries, which I’m sure upon completion of this column you’ll agree is both accurate and all-encompassing. This won’t be pretty. You should be prepared to roll around in the mud with this article, but in the end, I think you’ll walk away wiser.
Chocolate bars: Advantage Ireland.
Let’s jump into the meat of the debate, shall we? One of my guilty pleasures when visiting a country for the first time is delving into their junk food. That’s a huge part of the culture, isn’t it, the potato crisps and choco bars? I’m going to come clean and admit that I don’t speak Danish and, if you’ve tried to learn it, you’ll understand why I stopped trying. It’s a tongue twister (much like Irish) with words that are pronounced very differently from how they’re spelled (much like Irish). The best I could do was to visit the Irma shop and look for the good stuff.
On my first attempt, I settled on the Tyrkish Peber and the Pepe XXL. Both looked like respectable chocolate bars, the Tyrkish Peber with illustrations of flames coming out of the chocolate, which was intriguing. Upon returning to the hotel room, I ripped open the new delectables and chomped down on licorice…not chocolate.
Good people, I ask you, what nation of happy people disguise their licorice as chocolate and claim to still be happy? Their version of the Rolo was admirable, but the licorice was beyond the beyond.
Potato chips: Advantage Ireland.
On that first fateful trip, I also purchased a bag of Iberian ham potato crisps. Not so bad, I didn’t think. Quite like kettle cooked chips and certainly reminiscent of Iberian ham, I was content. Was I content enough to eschew my Tayto Cheese and Onion? Not on your life.
Bicycles: Advantage Denmark.
Next, we move to environmental issues. I was pleasantly surprised to see a complete void of plastic utensils. From the street vendors to the food markets, wooden spoons and forks abound. Likewise, the nation is awash in bicycles. At any Copenhagen stoplight, you’re likely to see as many or more bicycles as motorized vehicles. Ireland has bikes, but Denmark is bicycle Utopia.
Pastries: Advantage Denmark.
This one’s almost a no-brainer. Ireland has some lovely pastries. I mean, is there a person on the planet who doesn’t love sinking their teeth into shortbread biscuits? But, good people, consider the Danish. The danged word is synonymous with the country. They don’t call them Danish in Denmark, they call them pastries. And they’re goooood.
Tea: Advantage Ireland.
Denmark is not the black hole of easily accessible good tea like the United States, but a plain old cuppa does not grow on trees, like it does in Erin. Nose in the uppity direction.
Background music: Advantage Denmark
Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. You stop into a quiet little pub in a quaint Irish village and as soon as you’re settled, you realize that the music over the background speakers was selected by a twelve-year-old. It’s a phenomenon that to this day I can’t explain. Ireland is home to some of the best music the planet has ever known and yet, if you were to visit just about any public place in the country, you wouldn’t know it. It’s like businesses have decided that bubblegum pop is the only option, that adults don’t care about music, so let’s just please the wee ones.
Denmark had some of that, but on a whole, when you enter an establishment, you feel like there’s an adult in charge of the music.
Castles run by fictitious Danish Kings: Advantage Denmark.
We visited Kronborg Castle (aka Hamlet’s Castle) in Elsinore, Denmark. There’s really no competition on this one. I don’t think Ireland even has one of these.
Border Crossings: Advantage Denmark.
While I’ll admit that crossing between Monaghan, in the Republic and Keady, Co. Armagh, in the North, via the now derelict British Army barracks is a tonic, the five-mile train bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden, spanning the sea edges out the competition. Bravo Nordic countries. Bravo.
Pedestrian Shopping Streets: Draw.
It’s pretty darned difficult to top Grafton Street for pedestrian-friendly shops and restaurants, but the Strøget in Copenhagen’s historic district, will reel you in with its equally car-free and mobbed walkways. There’s just no clear winner.
Happiness: Advantage Denmark.
Alas, this one wasn’t up to me. Ireland ranks pretty high on happiness rankings based on any number of criteria, but the Danish are consistently among the happiest people in the world. Maybe it’s the Irish tendency to center life around alcohol, or their choice of pop music in public places…or perhaps it’s the preponderance of bicycles keeping people active and fit in Denmark, but whatever it is, kudos to them.
Flights: Advantage Ireland.
Our direct flight from Boston to Copenhagen was cancelled an hour before we were set to take off. And since we didn’t want to be saddled with a case of Coronavirus as we began our week in Denmark, we donned masks for the journey. The airline, through much confusion and consternation (and much is not a strong enough word) booked us on another airline through Portugal and onto Copenhagen twelve hours later than we had planned, thus essentially cutting a day off of our holiday. I’ll add that we were wearing masks for twenty-four hours. With the caveat that Aer Lingus brings us into Dublin from Boston at an ungodly early hour, they’ve never cancelled a flight on me.
Irish Pubs: Advantage Ireland.
There were an unusually high number of Iris pubs in Copenhagen, but let’s be honest. There are more in Ireland.
Danny Kaye Songs: Advantage Denmark.
For weeks leading up to our Danish trip—nearly on a daily basis—the old Danny Kaye standard “Wonderful Copenhagen” was rattling around my brain. It continued through our stay and even for days after returning. I’ll admit that no Danny Kaye song has done that to me any time I’ve spent in Ireland. Who knew?
And there you have it, a complete and unvarnished comparison between Ireland and Denmark the likes of which you’re not likely to find in any periodical outside of iIrish. Put it another way, Denmark is well worth a visit.
Ok, I'll concede that Denmark has better castles run by fictitious Danish kings than does Ireland.
Be forewarned. Neither of these is chocolate.
Every once in a while, I like to refrain from my usual stream of consciousness and throw down a few words that some people might actually find useful.
And ho-ho dear reader, we’ve reached that time. If you’ve ever been intimidated by, nonplussed or generally curious about sessions, it’s time to strap the seat belts onto your eyes, because I’m about to take them for a convoluted ride down Music Boulevard.
I’ll start with the most basic. A session—which in Irish is spelled seisiún—is a group of people playing instruments and/or singing in an informal setting. As you’re reading an Irish periodical, I don’t suspect I need to go any farther here.
Next, I’ll break down sessions into two camps: instrumental and vocal. A lot of people refer to instrumental gatherings as trad sessions, a term I don’t use because it seems to indicate that singing isn’t traditional, which it most certainly is. Likewise, some singing sessions are called pub song sessions, and I’m not a fan of that as I feel it minimizes the importance of songs in Irish culture.
And before I start to get hate mail about traditional singing being limited to sean-nós, I’ll just mention that nobody in Ireland had ever heard of a bouzouki until the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s folk music. It changes. If there were guitars around in Ireland in the nineteenth century, they would have been utilized (and no, not for kindling, so stuff it).
There is also a rare form of session that combines equal amounts of both instrumental and vocal, and these are personally my favorite. These are sessions where both camps respect the other, where the rhythm instruments know how to back up the tunes and the instrumentalists can back up the songs. I’ll point out here that backing up songs is an artform to itself. Playing the tune behind the lyrics isn’t the same as complementing the song.
Unfortunately, this type of session is usually not the case. Singers tend to think of tune players as diddley-dee boring and finger-in-the-ear arrogant, and tune players can look down on folksingers as being ignorant of Irish culture and lacking musical talent. In my opinion, both are right and wrong and can blind either side to the benefit of the other.
You’re probably going to want to visit your local session before joining it to scope out the feel. Every session has its own personality. Are they more advanced players than you, and if so do they seem accepting of learners? There might be hierarchies or accepted rules. Instrumental sessions tend to be free-for-alls, where anyone in the circle starts a tune, whereas oftentimes a singing session will go around in a circle with the next person encouraged to perform. (This isn’t always the case, and if it isn’t, take a tip and don’t become a spotlight hog. It’s good to have a little while between bursts to allow for some shyer participants to perform. Just because there’s a lull doesn’t mean you’re required to fill it.)
Take note of the tunes and songs performed. There are some standards that everyone will know and some that will be more popular at your local session. You can always work on them back at home and come in more prepared when you first attend.
Introduce yourself to some of the session-goers at the end or if they’re grabbing a pint. I find they’re a lot less intimidating when you talk to them rather than watching them play with dour faces aimed at the floor. They’ll usually be honest as well about how accepting the group will be to learners. Be forewarned, there can be open hostility to a novice inserting him or herself into a session of seasoned players. Not so much for the singing sessions.
I find there are three basic levels of tune players: the novice, who is intimidated by everyone, the amateur, who is superior to everyone, and the pro, who is supportive of everyone. (This obviously isn’t always the case. There are a lot of amateurs who are enthusiastic about newbies and there are jackass pros, but these are tendencies I’ve noticed.)
Some insights for newcomers
- In general, when a song or a set of tunes ends, everyone takes a drink.
- During tune sessions, when the singer starts, the players use the opportunity to grab a pint or hit the loo. Don’t take it personally (except in some cases, do).
- A fiddle is the same thing as a violin, but generally, someone playing classical music refers to it as a violin and someone playing Irish music calls it a fiddle.
- Uilleann pipes are the complicated-looking bagpipes that are played sitting down. When you refer to them, forget the “U” at the beginning. They’re illin, like you’re chillin’. Likewise, don’t pronounce the “D” in bodhrán (the Irish drum).
- There were years where eyes would roll when someone brought a guitar into a tune session. Along with the bodhrán, it was seen as pedestrian, played by someone less than a trad musician. In my opinion, a man named John Doyle changed that, so guitars are welcome once again (insert rejoicing sounds).
- If you’re a singer, you don’t need to use all of the thirty verses ever written for a song. It’s admirable that you researched it, but it gets a bit tedious.
- Poems and stories are underutilized in sessions. I wish that would change.
- You don’t need to preface every song with its history or significance. Just sing the song. It should usually speak for itself.
- Lulls aren’t the enemy. You don’t need to jump in every time there are two consecutive seconds without music. Give someone else a chance.
- Sessions are often the best when they’re not too planned.
- Hosting a session at your home? The higher the player to listener ratio, the better. A party that includes a session is not a session. It’s a performance.
- Check out the internet for common tunes and songs. There are a lot of them. Also, get the flavor of the session. Some might include old Americana music or bluegrass. Some might welcome music that doesn’t fit the mold, but some won’t.
- And finally, for the love of all that is holy, it’s music. It’s supposed to be enjoyable. Those with an attitude are wrong. Those trying to enjoy music are right. Anyway, that’s just my opinion.
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