in praise of a boring life

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Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

I would like to keep writing in this space as a slice-of-life thing. This decision didn’t come easily. 

I had a couple of crazy years in which blog posts seemed to type themselves, a couple of years feeling fascinated by France’s every quirk. I was constantly in motion. Visiting new cities. Starting at new schools.

My dream was (is?) to be a travel writer. I have a hunger for the world (and not only for its wonderful and varied cuisines). I love languages; I treasure a new word like a pearl.

Less than two years ago, I had these pages constantly open on my browser: a site about a teaching program in China, a Peace Corps application form for a stint in Cameroon, and my application essay for NYU’s graduate program in French. I interviewed at a Montessori school in Cannes and sent out applications for copywriter jobs in Chicago and Los Angeles. 

What I wanted was simple, I thought. I wanted to make a living in an interesting place and in doing so, have things to write about. Stories with which to build a portfolio.

Unfortunately I wanted all of these options, at the same time. I was paralyzed by the idea of giving up any one of these possible futures in favor of another.

As Sylvia Plath puts it in The Bell Jar:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

It turns out that not choosing is a choice in itself.

The one thing I knew for sure I didn’t want to lose was Victor, whom I had just met in a stroke of fortune (otherwise known as Tinder) at the end of my second stint teaching. In a zero-to-sixty kind of year, I went from a single girl with many nebulous dreams to a wife and mother. All before I took steps to develop a career. The shock was real. When I found out I was pregnant, I spent weeks glumly consuming American comfort food, googling every aspect of pregnancy and birth I could think up, and staring out the window. It was a dark time, when the energy needed to wash a plate was about more than I could muster. I had aged suddenly–someone’s mother?!–and it felt like I was mourning my youth and staring into a scary void.

Today, I am honored by and happy with these roles I now assume. I treasure my little family. That doesn’t mean that change wasn’t–isn’t–tough. Both things are true.

In relation to my blog, I suppose I’ve had a bit of an identity crisis. My vision of stories included visiting exotic cities, meeting strangers, strolling world markets, sleeping in shabby hostels, and cultivating a fearless spirit. This can’t exist anymore. Is there nothing to say? Have the rhythms of domesticity killed all wonder? Should I put my laptop on the shelf and hide my notebooks?

As an experiment, I just challenged myself to stop for five minutes and scribble a list of potential stories from the past year (a time in which I barely published here). It includes my French wedding, no small thing. It includes renovating an old house. I could write about my grandparents’ visit to our home in Fréjus, and how my grandma procured her first-ever passport for the trip, and how she and baby Clara have sparkling new passports in common. I could write about my short solo trip to Portugal, pregnant and so jet-lagged I felt drunk, but joyful at the cool sea air and Lisbon’s cheerful shabby color. I could write about Victor and my first flight with a tiny baby, the TSA worker who spied Clara in Atlanta and crowed: “that’s a newbie! That’s a newbie!”

In fact, a lot has happened after all, even in what felt like times of endless waiting. The events of last year have just been completely different from what I predicted. 

I’m reminding myself of something. As a reader, I value writing that is vulnerable and true. It doesn’t need to feature influencer-quality technicolor travel shots or take the reader on a rollercoaster of real-life plot twists. It doesn’t need to have all the answers or offer up the author as an example to emulate.

Instead, I value difficult honesty and grace. Reckoning and wrestling. A skill for finding humor and beauty, even in dark places. A sense of curiosity and wonder about the smallest things.

So I guess what I’m saying is: I would like to write that kind of blog.

As I know from personal experience, you can ruin your own normal, good life just by wishing you were somewhere else. (Madame Bovary is my literary warning for this tendency.) 

It’s time to make peace with the “boring life”–in other words, the one I’ve got. I will never be an influencer, modeling chic dresses in exotic locales while I offer up travel advice in a curated, relatable voice and get paid to do it all. My reality is something like this: cleaning up Pollock-like splotches of pureed fruits. Dreaming of a shower. Writing in ten-minute increments while Clara rolls around on the floor. Not at all glamorous. Rarely insta-worthy. But mine.

To adapt the old adage: you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you write about it.

floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

travel notebook, portovenere: alone in italia, day five

acs_0767By the fifth day of my trip, I am exhausted, and sleep so late I barely have enough time to get ready and leave my room before the lockout hours of 10:30 to 2. It’s raining pretty hard, but I’ve missed the shuttle, so I have my coffee and put on a rain jacket, with a loose plan to walk from the village where the hostel is located–Biassa–down to La Spezia, where I can take the train. It should take an hour and a half to walk those same (traumatizing) hairpin curves and is, quite frankly, a dumb idea.

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Luckily I am saved from myself. Downstairs, I’m greeted with a ciao and a question from a guy I recognize vaguely: the shuttle driver from the first day. He asks if I’m going to La Spezia because he’s heading that way, and he’s just about to leave. His name is Andrea and he’s from La Spezia and has been working at the hostel for just a month. He’s 25.

He speaks in English, punctuated with allora, and I do my best to answer in my rough Italian, which gives me a very clear picture of what I need to work on or learn. I make a mental list: past tense of ‘to see,’ ‘andare’ conjugations in the future, the word ‘before…’

The great thing about speaking to someone my age, who’s not trying to impress upon me a detailed grammar lesson, is the language improvisation muscles I’m able to flex.

My Italian tutor, Gianluca, is a great teacher who provides interesting cultural materials–we read Italian fairytales or articles that discuss the surprising success of Campari in the US–but sometimes I wish we could just have a conversation about Cinque Terre, for example. Or that I could learn how much is that, or, ATM or, can I please have the check, none of which, surprisingly, I know how to say. I may search an everyday conversation kind of partner to bolster the grammar workout I get in my lessons.

Andrea finds parking and then asks me what I’m doing today. The truth, and my typical travel strategy, is I have no idea.

I try to stay as unplanned as possible, and once again, it proves a success. Andrea asks if maybe I’ll go to Portovenere, or rather tells me I will, in that direct European way: allora, you’ll go to Portovenere today.

I’ve got my rain jacket and sneakers, I’m up for anything. Perchè no. 

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We walk through La Spezia’s morning market where Andrea tells me he used to work- He greets his mamma who is buying cheese. We visit three tobacco shops before we find one still stocked with bus tickets to Portovenere.

“We have coffee now?” He shows me to a Sicilian bar where we continue a conversation in an Italian-flavored English patois. I have a bad habit, I’ve learned. If I don’t know a word in Italian (very likely at this point), I automatically substitute the French equivalent. The problem with that is, most of the people I’m talking with speak much more English than they do French. The result is a garbled mélange of tre languages that does more to impede communication than anything else.

Andrea shows me to the bus stop and I’m on my way to Portovenere, which I know nothing about. The drive is once again nauseating. I observe passengers and concentrate on not throwing up. There’s a little French boy seated next to me, so excited he can’t sit still. He makes me smile, reminding me of my second-grade students from last year.

Portovenere is calm. That’s my first impression. Fresh air. Cinque Terre emptied of the selfie sticks and waiting lines for photo ops. A slight drizzle falls and boats creak in the port.

I enter a striped marble church on a cliff. Inside, a single candle is burning. Outside, through the narrow windows, the sea is stormy.

It is an atmosphere ripe for a Romantic poet, an impression validated when I come to “Grotta Byron.” Engraved over a door made of stones, it is written This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron/ It records the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici. It must have been a seriously demanding swim to merit recognition like that, in marble, no less. Apparently, the “daring” poet would “defy” the waves in order to visit friend and muse Shelley, who was living in the village San Terenzo.

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The black, stratified rock of the promontory is slick with rain, and I edge down it carefully. Yellow flowers spill over the rocks and the air once again smells of honeysuckle or jasmine. I surprise a seagull in his nest and he squawks at me, loudly, just once.

Staring out at the sea is a woman, gathering her dress in her hands, frozen in an expression of quiet resignation. She’s not real, but she could be. She seems to breathe, almost, and the rain falls down her carved cheeks like teardrops. She sits like someone too hopeless to take shelter from the storm. What’s the point?

I think she is waiting for a lover who will never return, lost to the sea. Mourning, perhaps with just the faintest glimmer of hope: maybe

There is no plaque, no dedication, no direction to listen to Section 6 on your audioguide, and I am charmed by this, by this sad, solid, nameless woman in the same color as the sea.

acs_0701 I start down some stone steps, almost missing the sweet scene of pink petals swept to the ground by the rain. Next to them is the tiniest snail.

I think: that looks like poetry, before remembering the specific piece it brings to mind. Ezra Pound’s one-sentence Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough

Famished, I eat at what seems to be the only restaurant still serving. I have trofie (a pasta specific to Liguria) with pesto. I am firmly in basil country here. As noted, they’ve even found ways to include the herb in really delicious gelato.

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I continue my walk, and when some bored waiters see me with my camera they shout in English, “hey! Take our picture!” So I do.

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sweet serendipity in the eagle’s nest of the côte d’azur

Anyone who visits me gets to see Èze.

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A vigorous, hour-long climb up and around a mountain rewards the casual hiker with a brilliant view of the Mediterranean from a postcard-perfect village.

 

I’ll break my rule and describe this hike as “breathtaking”–but only because you will not be able to breathe once you reach the top, I guarantee it. This hike is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for people wearing Birkenstocks and swimsuits (not that I would know anything about that).

 

The trail takes you from Èze-sur-Mer–the part of Èze located on a stretch of coastline, accessible by train–to Èze Village, a medieval town perched high on a mountain. The trail is called Nietzsche’s Footpath, and the writer apparently found inspiration and peace on this very trail. Nietzsche wasn’t the first to frequent this trail: that honor probably belongs to hoofed creatures. Le Chemin de Nietzsche was originally a path for goats.

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If the views are fit for praises, the climb itself could only have been named for a nihilist. My last visit had my calves aching badly enough to wake me in the night two days later. And I only made the descent.

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The trail is rocky, an ankle-sprain warning zone. It’s easy to imagine a goatherd leading his animals up the mountain for cheese-making purposes. It feels wild and real, and the effort makes the payoff so sweet. After perhaps 50 minutes of hard work, you turn a corner and can see the village above, its cheery yellow clocktower like a welcome.

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I spared my parents (and Dad’s year-old knee replacement) from making the trek in the snow when they visited, but typically I consider Èze one of the most worthy day trips when visiting the coast.

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Last Friday was forecast to be beautiful, so I woke up with a goal: getting to Èze to visit the botanical garden at the top. I hadn’t seen the garden on my previous visits, instead choosing to save a few euros. Then I realized the garden is the only place you can get the full panoramic view from the village that calls itself “the Eagle’s Nest of the Côte d’Azur.” It was 4 euros to enter, the price of a cappuccino in Cannes. Suffice it to say: it was worth it. acs_0454

I wandered around with my camera for awhile and saw a girl around my age doing the same thing. She appeared to be alone too. We smiled at each other. I made another loop around the garden and noticed her again, speaking in English to another girl who appeared to be alone. Just for fun, I went up and introduced myself and asked them how they found themselves in Èze.

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Erika, originally from Japan, currently living in Kenya, was traveling alone on a Julia-Roberts-style solo voyage. Clarisse recently left her home in Brazil to spend a few months in Aix-en-Provence learning French.

We would travel together for the rest of the day, and my quietly spontaneous trip to Èze would morph into a fun, frenzied journey to three different cities (one of them a country, if we’re being specific). We would be climbing up a hill to a pink mansion, running to catch trains, eating gelato in Monaco, and falling asleep over a late dinner of pizza. I wouldn’t get home until after midnight.

If each of us started the day like something out of “Eat, Pray, Love,” we would end it more like the Cheetah Girls.

 

(But of course, I didn’t know any of that yet.)

 

How easily we might have missed each other! One minute, one hour, one delayed train. You can’t force serendipity: that’s what makes it so sweet. But you can improve your chances.

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I say: do what you want to do, alone or not. Take the train, take the hike, buy the ticket, and don’t be afraid to talk to strangers.

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Even if you don’t have company, you just might find some.