Rice fields, lakes, rivers and fountains – acqua on the Via Francigena

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Day 45: Borgofranco D’Ivrea to Piverone (28 km)

I had breakfast with Anna Maria and her family at B & B Musica in Borgofranco D’Ivrea before setting off to Piverone where Anna Maria had called ahead to reserve a place for me at the municipal pilgrim accommodation.  The day before I had entered the region of Piedmonte (‘foot of the mountains’), and the scenery had changed quite dramatically.  I caught my last sight of the Alps as I left Ivrea, the Roman town of Eporedia.  I stopped at the castle for a break but did not linger in the town for long.  Although there were remains of the Roman amphitheatre and theatre I wanted to get to Piverone early for a relaxing afternoon so did not take time for sightseeing.  Glaciers of the last ice age had formed a distinctive plateau that I could see running along the plain in the distance as well as leaving several lakes.  I had not yet passed any lakes on my journey and as I walked through shady woodland trails alongside them I couldn’t resist taking several breaks to enjoy the views.  4 km before Piverone I passed through a small town that had an unusual structure on which was written ‘Palatium Acqua’.  At the front of the structure were two dispensers and upon further inspection I discovered they were dispensers of natural spring water. For 5 cents a litre you could fill bottles with mineral water, sparkling water, or lightly sparkling water.  Before living in Italy I had never considered how different the experience of drinking water could be depending on its mineral content or whether it was still or sparkling.  I was also used to buying water whenever I was thirsty for exorbitant prices, thinking little of it.  In Italy water is abundant, free or inexpensive and delicious.  I took out my water bottle and put in 5 cents and pressed ‘Aqua Leggeremente Frizzante’.  For the last 4 km I sipped the cold, lightly sparkling water which cooled me as I struggled up a final hill to my destination.

I entered the town of Piverone, a small historic town with one main street and small square, and found the pilgrim accommodation well-indicated. I rang the number written on the door to let the key holders know that I had arrived and a lady answered in Italian but with a faint English accent.  She apologetically explained that she wouldn’t be able to meet me for another hour so after agreeing to meet at 4.30pm I walked into the centre of the town to sit in the shade and rest.  The hour passed quickly and I was soon being shown into a lovely building where there were two dormitories on the top floor to accommodate pilgrims.  There were large windows with views of the beautiful scenery of fields and lakes with church towers dotted throughout. I was the only pilgrim staying in Piverone so I spent a quiet evening, first taking a trip to the small local shop for some fruit and snacks for the next day, then doing my pilgrim chores of hand washing my clothes and studying the route for the next day.  At 8pm I went to local bar for a big bowl of pasta with fresh pesto and a pistachio gelato for dessert.  The town was exceptionally quiet so I passed the rest of the evening with a book for company watching the sun set from my advantageous viewpoint in the hostel.

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Day 46: Piverone to Santhia (18.5 km)

I was only walking 18.5 km and it was a glorious morning – warm but still with a freshness in the air and a clear blue sky.  On the way out of Piverone I stopped at a café for my customary cappuccino and cornetto.  Before starting out I left my rucksack at the café and ran down to the town’s water dispenser to fill my water bottles with the lightly sparkling water I had enjoyed so much the day before.  The scenery was much the same into Santhia as it had been before Piverone.  I passed the largest of the region’s lakes, Lago Viverone, and walked through the small town of Viverone where I saw a sign for the route of the Via Francigena.  I had lost count at this point of how many kilometres I had walked but this sign informed me I had walked 1156 km and that I only had 835 km until I would arrive in Rome!  I had started to lose any sense of meaning when thinking about these numbers.  They are just too large to take in.  All I really knew that day was that I had 16 km until I reached Santhia where I would find a bed, food and some rest.  The experience of walking a pilgrimage teaches so many lessons that can be applied to life.  This lesson was the well-known saying – ‘take one day at a time’.  I am well-known for being overly-prepared and thinking far into the future, so it has been a positive, but at times difficult, experience for me to realise that I could only plan so much on the Via Francigena.  I have had to learn to take things as they come and to trust that it would work out.  It can be a vulnerable position to be in, but I believe it is this vulnerability that allows individuals on a pilgrimage to connect with local people and other pilgrims.  In our modern age which promotes self-sufficiency and individuality we so often go about our lives making little contact with those around us.  There is no way to blend in as a pilgrim.  With my large rucksack I stand out a mile away, but it’s a positive curiosity that draws people to speak to me.  They really want to know how I came to be in their small corner of the world.  Equally, I do not wish to walk through their town or village like a phantom, having no interaction with anyone.  It is that contact, even if it is just a simple exchange of greetings that makes the places along the way real and memorable.  A place is not just its buildings and scenery. 

The route to Santhia was clearly promoted at a local level as not only was the route incredibly well-marked but also towns I passed had pilgrim offices, pilgrim murals and pilgrim resting areas.  Santhia had its own pilgrim apartment and once I had located Piazza Roma I went into the café to pick up the key.  The apartment was right next to the church on the ground floor and yet again I had the place to myself.  For a 10 euro donation I was offered a comfortable place to rest as well as beer and water, a sachet of dried lavender with the symbol of the Via Francigena and an iron-on patch.  I looked through the pilgrim book where pilgrims write comments and where they are from.  Brian, who I had last seen in Champlitte in France, had been there just the day before and at least one pilgrim a day had stayed there in the last month.  Most pilgrims where Italian and had started in Aosta, but there were also pilgrims from France, Germany, and even one from South Korea.  I was given names of two restaurants where I could find a pilgrim menu which included a primo, secondo, water, wine and coffee for 10 euro.  There were even Wifi hotspots in the town.  It seemed they had thought of everything. 

I was to have an unusual experience that evening in the hostel at Santhia, as I had been contacted by the University of Kent a few weeks before, asking if I would be available to answer questions from the audience of a lecture on the Via Francigena presented by Dr. Barbara Bombi of the School of History.  I readily accepted the chance to speak about the route and my experience walking it, but I unfortunately would only be joining the conversation after the lecture and was unsure what types of questions I would be asked.  Promptly at 7.45pm the phone rang and Darren Ellis, who was assisting Dr. Bombi, introduced himself and asked if I was ready to answer a few questions. The first question was where I was and how far I had walked so far.  I was ready with the answer as I had seen the sign just that day. Questions from the audience included what kind of accommodation I was staying in, how many miles I walked each day, and if I had met many other pilgrims.  Answering these practical questions gave me the opportunity to explain the difficulties currently related to the route in terms of limited accommodation in France and the necessity to walk long distances due to these limitations.  I am still unsure how many people attended the lecture but I will have a chance to speak to Martina Gannon, a University of Kent in Paris master’s student who was present at the lecture, when she comes to join me for the last week before Rome. 

Once I hung up the phone I was quite eager to enjoy a filling meal so decided upon the closer of the two restaurants for the pilgrim menu.  When I entered the pizzeria the staff were not surprised at all when I announced I was a pilgrim.  The restaurant was already packed with families tucking in to plates of delectable pastas and pizzas, fresh from the woodfire oven.  The highlight of the pilgrim meal was the first course of pasta with fresh pesto.  This was the type of food I had longed for while walking in France and Switzerland.  It was not that those countries do not have wonderful cuisine, it was simply that it was not readily available in the hamlets and small villages that the Via Francigena took me through.  Walking back to the pilgrim accommodation in the warm evening air I relished the feeling of intense satisfaction from the meal.  I had four and half more weeks to walk in Italy.  I wondered how many beautiful places and delicious meals I would enjoy in that time.  I smiled and thought – lots!

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Day 47: Santhia to Vercelli (27 km)

On day 47 I was walking from Santhia to Vercelli, the rice capital of Italy.  Rice may not readily be associated with Italy but apart from the well-known pasta and pizza there is also the popular dish of risotto.  I had heard several horror stories of walking in this section.  The thought of rice fields brought to mind images of rice paddies in Asia, but what I found was a brown, flat landscape of fields flooded in a murky stagnant water with no sign of rice.  It was of course early in the year and only some of the fields had been sown and the seedlings had not yet taken.  The large quantity of water increased the humidity and with no shade I soon started to tire from hours of exposure to the intense sun.  There was nowhere to sit and rest save the dirt banks of the fields and as I could not walk on the dangerous main road I was forced to follow the route which zigzagged through the fields adding 8km to the journey to Vercelli.  I was surprised at first not to see the swarms of mosquitoes I had been warned about but when I set my rucksack down for a rest at one point I realised that it was literally covered in them.  They were clearly attracted to the black of the bag and once I stopped walking they discovered my exposed legs and arms.  I sprayed myself liberally with bug repellent and decided to put in my headphones and listen to music to distract myself from the boredom of the landscape and the difficulties of the heat, humidity and mosquitoes.  The music helped, but it was an arduous three hours more until I managed to navigate the water-logged fields to reach the outskirts of Vercelli.  45 minutes later I was ringing the buzzer of my accommodation for that night.  Brian had written me a text the night before warning me to stay away from the pilgrim accommodation which he said was absolutely terrible.  I couldn’t face a night of discomfort after the difficulties of the day and had decided to book a bed through Air BnB.  For 25 euro I would be guaranteed some comforts and also the chance to spend the evening with a local couple in their home. 

Virginia and Max were wonderful hosts during my one night in Vercelli.  I was invited to make myself at home and since I had been away from home for six weeks it was lovely to be able to enjoy a good cup of tea and to relax comfortably on the sofa.  They also kindly invited me to join them for dinner.  During the meal I asked about local cuisine and Max explained that there were the traditional dishes that one would expect in Northern Italy such as polenta and risotto, but that there were also some surprising specialities such as fried brains, escargot and frogs’ legs.  I was intrigued if it was due to a French influence, and asked why frogs’ legs.  Max wittily explained that where there are rice fields there are lots of frogs and so, in a historically poor area, frogs become dinner.  We stayed up talking until after 10 pm and I really should have got to bed early as I was walking 34 km the following day. I knew if the heat was anything like I had experienced on the way to Vercelli, those 34 km would be quite difficult unless I got off to an early start.            

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Day 48: Vercelli to Mortara (34 km)

I’ve noticed that when I stay in accommodation that is comfortable I have quite a difficult time leaving early in the morning.  My stay with Max and Virginia in Vercelli was no exception.  I woke up and got ready, but then started speaking to Virginia, enjoying cup after cup of English tea and pieces of toast with strawberry jam.  I took advantage of the Wifi as I didn’t expect to have any that night in the pilgrim accommodation in Mortara.  It was after 9am before I said goodbye to Virginia and thanked her for her wonderful hospitality.  I made a quick stop at the supermarket for some food for the road and then walked quickly through the centre of Vercelli – a bit disappointed I had not made time to see the city.  I was soon back in the rice fields dealing with the difficult walking conditions they created.  I was only 30 minutes outside of Vercelli when I passed a farmhouse where a barefoot 19 year-old girl stood by the road waiting for me to pass.  She asked if I was walking to Rome.  I said I was and we started to speak about pilgrims she had seen passing by over the years.  She clearly enjoyed meeting people from all over the world who passed her home.  I was very anxious to get going as I had barely walked 5 km of the 34 km to Mortara, but not wishing to be rude I ended up speaking with her for almost 30 minutes.  When I finally said goodbye I started walking at a frantic speed, trying to make up for lost time.  The 11.5 km to Palestra went through field after field and the time and distance dragged by slowly.  By the time I reached Robbio, another 6km further on, it was already past 2pm.  I couldn’t believe it was so late.  I still had 14.5 km to go. It was the first day I really wondered if I would make it to my destination.  I stopped at a café in Robbio for a cold drink and tried to recover from the heat and to psychologically prepare for the pushing myself to my destination. 

When I arrived at Mortara over three hours later I was exhausted.  I was staying at Abbazia di San Alcuino, a pilgrim hostel next to the small medieval church.  The hostel is run by Tino, a lady who takes her responsibility for caring for pilgrims very seriously.  There were twelve other pilgrims staying at the hostel that evening – eleven were a group of Italians walking from Milan to Turin to see the Shroud of Turin which was being shown to the public, and one was Karl, a German who was walking to Rome via Assisi.  It made a wonderful change to be around other pilgrims, and the lively atmosphere reminded me of hostels on the Camino de Santiago.  There was the familiar routine of waiting for the shower, washing your clothes, hanging them out to dry. Tino was bustling about preparing a pilgrim dinner for all 13 of us.  As she rushed back and forth from the kitchen to the large table I went to offer her some help.  She shook her head emphatically and said that I had done my work for the day.  I was a pilgrim and had walked all day, now it was time for me to rest.  I was touched by her dedication and went to chat with the other pilgrims until dinner. 

Tino spoiled us all that evening with a delicious home-cooked lasagne, followed by breaded chicken breasts and salad, and fruit for dessert. There were several bottles of red wine on the table that were poured liberally throughout the meal, and then coffee was served to finish the meal.  Our appreciation for the wonderful meal was expressed by a spontaneous round of applause.  Tino brushed off our gratitude with the wave of a hand and rushed back to the kitchen.  We all helped to clear the table, but my offer to wash dishes was firmly refused.  The group of Italians asked me to join them for a prayer in the small church so we filed into the lovely little church for a short prayer after which Karl broke into a hymn in an impressive baritone.  Within another half an hour members of the group started to put in their earplugs and settle down for the night.  They were planning on an early start as they would be walking the same stretch I had struggled through that day. It was also supposed to be stormy in the afternoon.  I had a relatively light day of 23.5km but did not stay up much later than the group as I also hoped to arrive in my destination of Garlasco before it started raining.

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Day 49: Mortara to Garlasco (23.5 km)

Day 49 of my trip was quite significant as it was the last day on the Via Francigena I walked on my own.  The next day I was going to be joined by Alice Clough, a young English woman who had walked on her own from Cambridgeshire to Rome after she finished her undergraduate degree when she was only 21.  I had read her blog at the suggestion of the Brian Mooney, President of the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome.  I had contacted Alice before I left the UK for tips on the route and to ask about any safety issues she had had as a woman walking alone.  Alice is currently enrolled in a master’s programme in Milan, and had asked if she could join me for one day from Garlasco to Pavia.  I was of course very pleased to not only have the opportunity to meet her, but also to walk with someone who had already walked the route.  Once in Pavia, I would be joined by the first of three University of Kent students who had been awarded funding by the University of Kent European Centres to participate in the ‘Kent on the Via Francigena’ initiative, two of whom would walk the final section with me to Rome. 

Walking alone is such a different experience to walking with someone else.  I was really looking forward to being able to share all that the Via Francigena has to offer, but I took this last day to enjoy walking at my own pace and taking in all the sights and sounds that you are so sensitive to when walking in the silence of your own thoughts. 

The scenery was slowly changing.  The rice fields became fewer and fewer giving way to fields of grass with bright patches of poppies.  I went through one small village where locals delighted in calling out my next right or left turns and waved me on to calls of ‘forza’ and ‘brava’.  When I arrived in Tromello, just 5 km from my destination I was in for a bit of a surprise.  I walked through the quiet streets until I saw an elderly man riding slowly on a small bicycle.  He pulled up alongside me and asked if I was a pilgrim. I said I was and he pointed at his bicycle which was painted red, green and white for the Italian flag and had a Via Francigena sticker on it.  He welcomed me to Tromello and asked if I would like a stamp for my credentials.  I said I would, and so he got off his bicycle and guided me to what turned out to be a pilgrim rest area equipped with its own bar and a large assortment of liqueurs and spirits.  I was a bit confused as to what this place was.  It had a rather makeshift appearance with such unusual features as a dentist chair in one corner.  The gentleman, who introduced himself as Carlo, explained that he was a volunteer who had taken it upon himself to make sure that all pilgrims who walk through Tromello are greeted and offered refreshment and a place to rest.  I decided this was a good place to stop and have some lunch so Carlo walked me to the local shop for a sandwich, and then offered me water and juice when we went back to the bar.  He chatted away as I ate explaining that people in the village look out for pilgrims and call him when they spot one.  I asked if he had seen an Irish man called Brian and he said that Brian had passed through the day before.  Brian had stopped at the village café for a beer and the barman had called Carlo to let him know.  So Carlo had hopped on his bike and gone to the café to greet him.  I also asked Carlo if he remembered Alice who I would meet the next day.  Amazingly he did remember her, as I don’t believe too many pilgrims meet the description of a young woman who is so petite she resembles a small child (Alice’s own description, not mine).

My visit with Carlo was cut short by a call on him phone announcing that 19 pilgrims had just arrived in the village.  I put on my rucksack and thanked Carlo for his hospitality, waving goodbye as he jumped sprightly onto his bike and rushed off to greet these new pilgrims.  The sky had turned dark while I had been in Tromello and a fierce wind suddenly picked up as I hurried on my way to Garlasco.  I stopped just once to put away my camera and to suit up in my rain gear.  The wind was strong but the temperature still incredibly hot as I walked at a quick pace.  I soon became so overheated I had to take of my jacket but I was very fortunate that the clouds never appeared directly overhead, so I arrived in Garlasco completely dry. 

The hostel in Garlasco provides one room and bathroom for pilgrims in one of its town offices.  It was very clean and comfortable and it was still so early in the day that I was able to sit quietly in the room for three hours writing until I went to meet Alice’s train from Milan at 8pm.  At 7pm the sky had opened and I watched the rain lashing down in the square outside my window.  The rain let up just in time for me to walk to the station but as I waited for the train to arrive it started heavily again.  I saw a small figure on the other side of the platform as the train pulled away and was soon giving Alice a welcome hug as we squinted in the rain.  Getting quickly acquainted we rushed through the streets getting quite drenched and chilled through.  Neither of us had had any dinner so we sought out a nearby restaurant and piled through the door of an inviting pizzeria dripping wet.  We apologized as we handed over our wet raincoats to the waiter and took a seat in one of the comfortable booths.  It was a strange sensation to feel that I knew Alice as we sat chatting away.  Our common interests and experiences put us immediately at ease with each other and we spent a lovely few hours indulging in pizza and sharing a tiramisu while we exchanged stories from the Via Francigena.

When we walked back to the hostel the rain had fortunately stopped.  We were surprised to find another pilgrim in the room who much have arrived after 8pmm. Luca, an Italian gentleman from near Milan, was walking for a few days on the Via Francigena.  He explained that he walked a few days at a time, slowly making his way along the route.  We exchanged information of the route for the next day comparing our respective guide books before turning in, agreeing to wake up at about 7am.

Day 50: Garlasco to Pavia (22 km)

Alice and I were both ready to set out by 8am but first we had to make an important stop at a beautiful café in the town square for a cappuccino and cornetto.  We found lovely whole wheat cornetti filled with jam.  Breakfast had become one of my favourite moments of the day. I loved the feeling of intense satisfaction following the delicious pastry and coffee that always put a smile on my face and filled me with energy as I set off for the day’s walk.  Alice and I had just turned onto the main street when we spotted a pilgrim up ahead. At first we thought it was Luca, but when we saw the long dreads we realised our mistake.  As the pilgrim stopped to check his guidebook for directions we had time to catch up.  We were greeted by a warm smile from Francesco, a 19-year-old from Verona who had been walking for ten days already and was making his way to Rome.  We agreed to walk to together and so Alice and I switched to Italian to include our new walking companion in our conversations.  It struck me as a strange coincidence that the very day that I had some scheduled company on my journey I should bump into a fellow pilgrim.  It was therefore as a group of three, rather than of two that we made our way that day to Pavia.  We passed the last of the rice fields, sharing our tales of how difficult they had been to walk through from Vercelli to Mortara.  We stopped at the town of Gropello Cairoli at Alice’s request to see if we could find a woman who had invited Alice to her home for dinner two years ago when she was staying at the hostel in the small town.  As Alice tells the story, she had arrived at the hostel feeling quite down, and was having a gelato at a bar when the lady working there had started talking to her.  Alice believes her sad spirits had been so apparent that the lady took pity on the poor ‘bambina’ and invited her for dinner.  Alice guided us to the same bar and went in to see if the lady was there. She suddenly appeared at the doorway accompanied by a smiling lady who was clearly pleased and incredibly surprised to see the pilgrim who had spent an evening with her family two years before.  We went into the bar where we were introduced to Patrizia, Alice’s ‘angel’.  We had coffees and chatted with Patrizia for a good half an hour before we said our goodbyes, back on the road with memories of this kind lady and a gift of fresh paninis tucked in our rucksacks. 

We hadn’t been walking for long when we bumped into the group of 19 pilgrims that Carlo of Tromello had rushed off to greet the day before.  It turned out that they were from Germany and were walking for ten days on the Via Francigena from Nicorva to Berceto.  They had walked for ten days the year before and planned to continue on the route each year until they reached Rome. We followed the group until we stopped for our lunch just before the Ticino River Nature Reserve.  As we munched on our mozzarella and tomato paninis we thought of Patrizia’s generosity.  After lunch we continued on our way to Pavia, following the route through the nature reserve, alongside the banks of the wide River Ticino.  We waved as we passed the group of Germans who were resting in the shade by a café and followed the white arrows for the route as the path hugged the riverbank.  When the path divided  a little further on we could no longer see any signs or arrows.  Francesco and I looked at our respective guidebooks but neither explained which route to take.  We decided to follow to the right but the path ended at a house.  We assumed that it must have been the path to the left so turned back and started to walk along the sandy path until we stopped by water over a foot deep that was flooding from the river into the path.  As we stood there decided what to do we watched the water creep further in and realised we had no choice but to turn back.  Tired and hot we stopped at the café with the Germans to have a drink and plan what to do next.  One lady spoke English and we explained about the flooded path.  She told us that in her guidebook that path was an alternative to the road, but the book noted that it could be underwater at times.  We followed the group when they left and walked on the quiet road until it rejoined the path further on.  Apart from a having to climb around a few fallen trees we arrived at Pavia alongside the river without any more problems.  When we were almost at the famous covered bridge we were greeted by a group of locals who wanted to know where we had started from.  They were pleasantly surprised to learn that the route was being travelled by at least 24 people in just one day and so early in the year.  I could hear them speaking about how it had been a good investment to put up good signs on the Pavia section of the route as we walked away.

We did not cross the covered bridge into the centre of Pavia, but turned to the right of the river to find the hostel I had booked for myself and Eimear Friers, fellow Alumna of the University of Kent who I had studied with the year before.  Eimear was arriving by train from Milan in just over an hour so I was glad to have just enough time to drop of my bag and freshen up before I went to meet her. Alice and I walked back into Pavia an hour later, across the impressive covered bridge, through the historic centre of Pavia which was buzzing with locals, students and tourists who were enjoying the warm afternoon sipping cold drinks in the squares and eating gelati as they took in the beautiful surroundings.  Eimear had already arrived when we walked into the station.  I hadn’t seen her since graduation almost five months before and it was lovely to think that we would have two weeks to catch up.  Alice had just over an hour to catch her train back to Milan so we went for a gelato nearby filling Eimear in on our day’s adventures.  When it was time for Alice to go it felt like I’d known her much more than just one day.  I was so glad she had been a part of my trip and I know she felt the same. 

Eimear had flown to Milan from Dublin the night before, arriving just before midnight.  She had just had enough time to see the Duomo in Milan before she took the train to Pavia.  She of course had her heavy rucksack with her so we went to the hostel quickly to drop it off, both eager to get back into the centre of Pavia for a good look around and a nice dinner.  I had never heard of Pavia except in passing comments and was surprised by how charming it is.  The historic centre is rich in both history and architecture. Evidence of its Roman past as the town of Ticinum was clear from the remains of a Roman bridge across the Ticino River next to the covered bridge.  It was already getting quite late so we lacked the time to explore properly but enjoyed a leisurely walk through the principal square of Piazza Vittorio where we visited the tourist office for Eimear’s first stamp in her credentials. We just had time to see the Duomo before hunger overtook us and we decided on a very trendy bar for an aperitivo.  In Italy, where dinner is not usually served until 7.30pm an aperitivo is a perfect option for a pilgrim who wishes to get to bed early.  After several visits to the bar filling up on fresh salads and pastas we were very satisfied and happy, and were able to have a leisurely walk back to the hostel and were in bed by 10am.  It would be Eimear’s first day on the Via Francigena from Pavia to Santa Cristiana and 27.5 km was no short distance.  I wanted to be sure she had sufficient rest to face the challenge on the next day.  Eimear and I were quite confident that she would be able to manage well with the distances I needed to walk over the next two weeks, but each person reacts differently to the combination of distance, heat, terrain, and weight of their rucksack.  I think we were both a little anxious to know how the next day would go. 

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