Thursday, August 20, 2015

Florence is worth all the hassles:The Italy Diaries, Part VI


Despite all the hassles of driving in Florence, this city was worth every bit of pain. (And there was pain.)It is without a doubt one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

For the most part we found ourselves returning to the places we loved rather than discovering new treasures in Florence—although we decided to skip the Uffizi this time. We’ve been there twice before and certainly haven’t exhausted it, but this time we just couldn’t deal with the long lines and the crowds.

We decided instead to revisit the Pitti Palace which is much more manageable. The Pitti Palace is a treasure trove of old masters; unfortunately, many of the paintings are hung so high on the wall, they’re impossible to see. Artemisia Gentileschi’s La Guiditta (fortunately hung at eye level) is one of my favorites, partly because it is by one of the very few women artists of the Italian Renaissance and because it’s a compelling, highly unusual take on a popular Renaissance /Baroque subject—the biblical story of Judith’s beheading of Holofernes. Usually there’s a grisly scene of Judith displaying Holofernes’ severed head dripping with blood. Here Holofernes’ head is not center stage but partially concealed in a basket. The focus is all on Judith.

For me, one of the great pleasures of travel in Italy is discovering painters I had never heard of but who are really, really good. There was so much artistic talent in Renaissance Italy and most of us have only heard of the most famous. Usually the ones who became famous are the ones who have pioneered a new style. The European tradition prizes innovation and those who are not trailblazers but who do wonderful work within established tradition are often forgotten. This time my "discoveries" included the frescoes of Allori in Santa Maria Novella and the portraits of Guistus Sustermann in the Pitti Palace
Portrait of Galileo in the Uffizzi

If there's a next time in Florence, I'll make sure to see the Susterman portraits in the Uffizi

facade of Santa Maria Novella

In addition to Santa Maria Novella, we revisited other beloved churches, including of course the Duomo. I could spend all day staring at the fa├žade of the Duomo, a confection of pink and white and green marble. The first time I saw the Duomo was on incredibly hot, hazy summer day. The second time was on a gray winter day--finally this time we saw the Duomo against the bright blue sky of a balmy October day.

Another church we had to see again was Santa Maria Del Carmine; the church’s Brancacci chapel contains a wondrous fresco cycle by Masaccio; his expulsion of Adam and Eve is one of the most haunting paintings I’ve ever seen.


I would love to spend a year in Florence taking it all in, but alas at this stage of life that is clearly not going to happen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Vacation Rentals in Italy--Some Things to Consider: The Italy Diaries, Part V




Most of our vacation rentals have been in the U.S., most recently in Block Island where everything always goes smoothly—no snafus, no unpleasant surprises. Not the case in Italy.

We wanted a base in Tuscany and chose Fiesole, which is close to Florence and a good base for exploring the Tuscan hill towns. We wanted a hilltop villa with a wonderful view of the Tuscan hills. We hadn’t considered that if the villa is on the top of a hill getting there just might be a challenge. Actually it was a nightmare. In order to drive into town from our hilltop house we had to make our way through through a maze of incredibly narrow—albeit incredibly picturesque—streets. We finally learned how to navigate the streets but not before doing some serious damage to our rental car. Moral of the story: if you are staying in a hill town, ask questions about driving conditions to the rental property, and if you are dealing with a situation like ours, by all means rent the smallest car you are comfortable with.

One problem with rental properties is that often you do not know what questions to ask. It never occurred to me to ask if there was a landline. When we got to the house, we looked around for a phone, and when we saw none in sight, I realized it was a good thing I brought my cell phone. If I had known there was no landline, I would have bought a European cell phone plan and would have avoided an astronomical cell phone bill.

Also, ask questions about bathrooms. Since an old friend was joining us, we needed 2 bathrooms. We rented our house both because it had a view over the Tuscan hills and because it had 2 bathrooms. I assumed they would be adjacent to the bedrooms, but to my surprise, the second bathroom was in the basement down a steep flight of stairs. The Italians don’t share the American predilection for at least as many bathrooms as there are people sharing a dwelling, and it turned out to be difficult to find an affordable rental property with 2 bathrooms. Moral of the story: if you are renting a place with more than one bathroom, ask questions about its location. In Italian houses, second and third bathrooms are often recent additions, and can be in very inconvenient places.

But despite all this complaining, I love, love Italy. It’s worth putting up with a few inconveniences.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Driving in Tuscany: The Italy Diaries, Part V


Street in Fiesole

One of the reasons we chose Fiesole as our base in Tuscany was to have easy access to Florence. Florence has changed since our last visit in the mid 1990’s—-more cars, more traffic jams, and far fewer parking spaces. We quickly discovered that driving in Florence is a major challenge and parking is practically impossible. We found the pedestrians even scarier than the drivers. They would dart out into the streets seemingly unconcerned about their safety. We had one near-miss.

Our first drive into Florence was a nightmare. Signage was bad, street signs were lacking, and it took us over an hour to find a parking space. We would have taken a bus into Florence and avoided all this, but there is no long-term parking in Fiesole and we had no place to leave the car. Since our rental property was at the top of a steep hill, we couldn’t leave our car there because there was no way we could walk up and down that hill to get to the bus stop. We had no choice but to drive into Florence.Fortunately, Rick is a quick study and by the time we left Florence he was easily navigating the streets of Florence.

What really made our lives easier was our discovery of what we called “the secret parking place” which we stumbled upon by accident. From the road it looks like a little parking lot jammed with cars. However, behind these cars is an opening to a long narrow parking lot strung along the old city walls, with about a half mile of precious parking spaces. There were always spaces available, so when we drove into Florence we parked there and either walked or took a cab to our destination. Of course our secret parking place was no secret to the locals. We heard no language other than Italian in the parking lot and saw no people other than ourselves carrying tourist guides.

If there is a next time in Tuscany, we will be carfree.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ferrrara: The Italy Diaries, Part IV

Castello Estense, Ferrrara

After our trip to Italy in the Fall of 2014 I wrote a few blog posts abut the trip( See So happy to be back in Veniceand Verona’s Magical Old Town.) But then I got so involved in politics and then gardening that I never finished posting my Italy notes.

My last post was about our trip to the incredibly beautiful Lake Garda.
We wanted to stay for forever at the lake side Villa Giulia but considering how expensive the wonderful hotel restaurant was, it was just as well we had to move on.

Then off to Ferrara. On my 70th birthday, I got an unpleasant surprise. I got an email from the hotel in Ferarra telling us that we didn’t show up last night and would be charged for the no-show. I checked my email confirmation and it turned out we had the date mixed up. I had booked for 9/29 rather than for 9/30 as I had intended. We got a room for 9/30 but would have to pay for both nights. Rick and I have been traveling together for over 30 years and have never screwed up the dates like this. What a horrible thing to happen on one’s 70th birthday--confirmation of how we’re losing it!

Our brief stop in Ferrara convinced us that we were too old for these one night stops. When we were younger we did lot of hopping about from town to town. But now we don’t have the energy.

Given our fondness for staying in medieval old towns, locating a hotel can be a real challenge. After we’ve settled into our hotel there’s at most a few hours of daylight left for sightseeing, and the next day we’re on the road again.We promised each other this would be the last trip with one-night stops.

Of course, the down side of staying 4-5 days in one town is that you're usually doing a lot of driving back and forth to nearby towns. Also when you are using one town as a base to visit towns in a region, you usually don’t get to see those other towns at night—essential to really get the feel of the town. But then you’re not dealing with the hassle of constantly changing hotels. Trade-offs, trade-offs.

We chose Ferrara because it was mid-point between Lake Garda and Fiesole. Ferrara was not a town I fell in love with but perhaps with more time I would have discovered more of its charms. The major sites are all within walking distance of each other, but we only had time for the cathedral and a brief walking tour of the old town. We did discover a charming reasonably placed restaurant in the cloister of Santa Anna Church. And our hotel, Horti Della Fasanara, situated in a very large garden was so charming, I didn’t mind so much that we paid for it twice thanks to our reservations mix-up.

Hotel Horti Della Fasanara
There are always mishaps in traveling but they’re particularly annoying when they are your own fault.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The hydrangeas are back!

Nikko Blue is back

2014 was the year without hydrangeas—or at least without my beloved hydrangea macrophylla AKA mopheads. Unlike the mopheads, the lacecaps can apparently survive the most brutal winter and I did have lacecap hydrangeas in 2014.

I was really afraid that the exceptionally cold winter of 2015 would mean another summer without hydrangea macrophylla. To my great relief that did not occur.

One of the fun things about hydrangea varieties--the color varies depending on where you plant them. Endless summer is purple in my front yard
Endless summer is blue in my back yard


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Block Island June 2015


My husband Rick and I just returned from Block Island. I never thought we’d return to the same vacation spot year after year, but we’ve fallen in love with Block Island, a tiny little island about 14 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

You have to really love this place to put up with the hassles of getting there. Demand for rentals exceeds supply, so to rent a house you need to book in January and book your ferry reservations in January as well.

But Block Island is worth it—gorgeous uncrowded beaches, unspoiled meadows and woodland, great restaurants--the perfect chill-out place. We rent a house big enough to invite friends and relatives. Rick is from Rhode Island and it’s an opportunity for him to see some of his RI friends and relatives.

Unlike Martha’s Vineyard which is so large that you’re often not aware you’re on an island, on little Block Island you are almost always within sight of the ocean. And there's no problem with beach access. There are no mega mansions commandeering large stretches of beach.

We stated going in July/ August, then tried September and have finally settled on June as the perfect time for Block island.
In June the island is covered with rugosa roses.
Rugosa roses blooming second week in June on Block island

And the flowers I love the most--iris, peonies, lilacs, the flowers of late Spring in my Philadelphia garden--are blooming in early summer on Block island.

When I said good by to my beloved Ms. Kim lilac in mid-May, I expected never to see it again for another year, but there were 4 Ms. Kim lilacs blooming in the yard of our rental property, along with a peony and some spectacular iris. I didn’t have to wait a year after all!

Ms. Kim lilac blooming second week in June on Block island
Peony blooming second week in June on Block island
Iris blooming second week in June on Block island

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Wyck Rose Garden has inspired me to try again to grow old roses


Last week I finally got it together to go to the Wyck Rose Garden
I can’t believe that despite living in Northwest Philly for the past 50(!) years, this was my first visit to the Wyck Rose Garden.

The roses were slightly past peak thanks to an unseasonal heat wave, but the fragrance was still overwhelming. Wyck gives these roses what they want—-full sun. There’s no getting around it; roses require full sun.

For many years I tried to grow old roses—-mostly in partial sun. I remember their names: Madame Hardy, Pierre Oger, La Reine, Rose de Rescht. I loved them, and I lost them all.

The tour guide at Wyck encouraged me to try again. She advised growing the really old roses—-damask and gallica--if I can find a spot in full sun.

I think I’m going to give it a try. It will involve pulling out some plants now in my few spots of full sun, but that fragrance is worth it!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Alice Goffman's powerful ethnographic study of a West Philadelphia neighborhood--On the Run : Fugitive Life in an American City



Anyone concerned about urban poverty and the hyper-policing of poor minority communities should read sociologist Alice Goffman's powerful ethnographic study of a West Philadelphia neighborhood, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Goffman somehow gained the trust of young men in a poor African-American community and for 6 years lived in the community in order to document their lives. The power of the book lies in the details--the thick description of the lived experience of these young men and their families.

At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it; I thought I knew all about urban poverty and the consequences of excessive police surveillance in poor neighborhoods. I’ve read much of the literature and had my own horrendous experiences with racist police in the 1960’s.

So I thought I knew all about this, but I had never really understood the consequences for an entire community when the majority of residents either directly or indirectly have had some interaction with the criminal justice system. I hadn’t realized how frequently young men(and yes it's usually young men of color) were thrown back in jail for long stretches of time for relatively trivial parole violations, or for failure to pay fines—-thus criminalizing poverty itself. I hadn’t fully understood the corrosive effect on personal relationships when the police threaten the partners of these young men with loss of children, loss of housing if they do not inform on their partners.

There is one particularly powerful quote from the book which will stay with me. From a guard in a half-way house:
It’s a broken system. These men are locked up because they didn’t pay their court fees, or they got drunk and failed [their piss test]. They’ve been locked up since they were kids.. Then they come home to this shit[the halfway house], sleeping one on top of the other, no money, no clothes. And the rules they have to follow—nobody could follow those rules. It’s a tragedy. It’s a crime against God. Sometimes I think, in 50 years we are going to look back on this and, you know, that this was wrong. And everybody who supported this—their judgment will come.
The book has been widely praised by scholars such as Cornell West, Elijah Anderson, and Christopher Jencks, but it has also received criticism for reinforcing stereotypes. I too was troubled by this. Perhaps anticipating this criticism, Goffman includes a chapter in the book about young men who manage to lead law-abiding lives despite living in a crime ridden environment.

Nonetheless the focus on violent crime and dysfunctional families does risk perpetuating stereotypes and as Dwayne Betts wrote in Slate “By failing to develop her critique of mass incarceration, [Goffman] has written the kind of truncated account of black urban life that encourages outsiders to gawk. Law Professor James Forman, Jr. makes a similar point in his review of On the Run in the Atlantic: noting that "previous ethnographers have found that a minority of young black men in poor communities engage in violent crime, and that even fewer carry guns.”

Of course, one book can’t explore every aspect of a complicated problem. Goffman is not attempting to write a comprehensive history, but rather trying to give her readers some sense of what it's like to live in a community where excessive police surveillance permeates every aspect of life.

More recently, Law Professor Steven Lubet in his New Republicb article Did This Acclaimed Sociologist Drive the Getaway Car in a Murder Plot? The questionable ethics of Alice Goffman's On the Runcharges that Goffman “appears to have participated in a serious felony in the course of her field work—a circumstance that seems to have escaped the notice of her teachers, her mentors, her publishers, her admirers, and even her critics.”

I found the behavior Lubet considers a felony troubling, but hadn’t thought through the legal implications. I plan to re-read that section of the book. His critique does raise serious questions about Goffman’s judgment, but in no way diminishes the power of the book.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Jim Kenney for Mayor: We can't take this for granted!




When Jim Kenney jumped into the race, I got on board right away. I admired his willingness to take on tough issues—e.g. LGBT rights, decriminalization of marijuana-- before it was politically safe to do so.

Now four months later, after seeing the campaign he’s run, I’m more convinced than ever that he will be a great mayor.

At forum after forum, he’s demonstrated deep knowledge of city government and has put forth a platform that is carefully thought out, progressive and achievable.

A candidate’s campaign—particularly a campaign for executive office--gives us some inkling of the kind of administration he/she will run. And Jim Kenney has run a stellar campaign.

He has brought together the multi-racial, cross-class coalition that he will need both to win and to govern. I have never in my thirty plus years of involvement in Philadelphia grassroots politics seen the liberal/progressive community so united around a candidate. I no longer have to try to convince folks that Kenney is the best person for the job. Just about everyone I know has already come to that conclusion.

The only convincing left to do is make sure Kenney’s many supporters go to the polls. Yes, he’s ahead in the polls but we all know that the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Maybe it takes a really hard winter to appreciate spring

Cercis Canadensis AKA Redbud


Maybe it takes a really hard winter to appreciate spring but I’ve been enjoying—intensely enjoying--every moment of the Spring of 2015.

Yes I lost a few plants, but the ones which survived are doing really, really well. My early blooming deciduous rhododendron—Cornell’s Pink—has never looked so good.
Cornell’s Pink rhododendron

And the daffodils when they finally arrived have been spectacular.



Ice Follies naturalizing all over my garden.

I’ve been spending all the time I can spare in my garden. Okay, maybe I’m behind schedule in my writing projects, but first things, first.


More photos to come!!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Jim Kenney for Mayor: For once progressives are not divided



Usually a primary season is fraught with tension. The progressive community is divided about which candidates merit our support and I often find myself on different sides from my good friends, the people I work with in issue groups. Not this time.

Given the broad support Jim Kenney has among progressives groups and organized labor, and given the cross racial, multi-ethnic coalition Jim Kenney has built, this feels more like a general election than a primary.

What a contrast with past mayoral primaries! The 2007 Mayor’s race was particularly painful. I was a strong supporter of Michael Nutter and some of my very best friends were backing Chaka Fattah. One good friend and I had to agree not to talk about the Mayor’s race until after the primary election.

The Clinton/ Obama race was another major problem for me. I was an early Obama supporter and also the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Most NOW members were passionate Clinton supporters and viewed someone like me as traitor. Fortunately for me, some of our active Philadelphia NOW members were Obama supporters and there was not a whole lot of tension within the chapter.

But my connection with NOW did make me a target for Clinton supporters. One of my colleagues at the Community College of Philadelphia told me that if I continued to support Obama, I should resign as Philadelphia NOW president--I could be an Obama supporter or President of Philadelphia NOW, but not both. I didn’t resign, but I was acutely aware of the tension.

Another example was the 2014 gubernatorial race with progressives deeply divided—-some of us supporting Allyson Schwartz, others supporting Rob McCord, others supporting Tom Wolf. It was such a relief when the primary was over and we were all on the same side.

Of course, not everyone I’ve ever worked with or ever been allied with is supporting Jim Kenney in the 2015 mayoral race; however, I can’t recall a time when there was this much unanimity in a contested primary. Feminists /progressives generally agree on issues, but when it comes to deciding who is the best candidate to advance those issues, internecine warfare often breaks out.

Now I keep reminding my self—-don’t get complacent, this is still a hotly contested election. The TV ad wars have yet to begin. What has been a fairly civil election could get really ugly. But at least I’m not fighting with my good friends in NOW.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

I have snowdrops and crocus, but where are the daffodils??

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I have snowdrops and crocus, but where are the daffodils??

I have been keeping garden notes since 1996 and this is the first spring that I have not had daffodils blooming by April 1. The earth may be warming, but that’s sure not the case in my garden. (I am not a climate change denier, just an impatient gardener.)

In 2013 which also had a cold miserable winter, at least by April 1 I had a few tete a tete daffodils (small bright yellow miniatures which are usually the first to bloom). In 2012, (in addition to snowdrops, crocus and tete a tete) I had ice follies daffodils, scilla , chionodoxa, anemone blanda, a few hyacinth, hellebores, and my forsythia and magnolia stellata were beginning. This was generally the pattern since I started keeping detailed records.

I am so impatient for the show to to begin!!!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lake Garda, Two days in Paradise;The Northern Italy diaries, Part III




This was our 3rd trip to the Italian Lake District; our previous trips to lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano were in the summer. The crowds were overwhelming, the narrow, winding streets clogged with traffic. In late September, the tourist season was almost over and the roads far less crowded.

This time we went to Lake Garda and happened to choose one of the most beautiful towns on the lake—-and one of the best hotels we've ever stayed in, Villa Giulia. The hotel is right on the shore of Lake Garda and our cottage opened up to a patio practically at the water’s edge. There were gorgeous flowers everywhere, especially purple bougainvillea that was growing all over Lake Garda.
And the hotel had its own parking lot! I think we were happier to see that parking lot than the spectacularly beautiful lake. (Driving in Italy does that to you.)

The first day we just chilled out by the lake.


On our second day we decided to drive around the entire lake. We didn’t realize how long it would take. Those narrow winding roads are a challenge and it was impossible to stop at all the little towns our guidebooks advised.

Although the west side of the lake is less developed than the east--and far more beautiful—there were towns on the east side like Bardolino that made the long drive around the lake definitely worth it. It’s famous for the red wine made there as well as for an 11th century Romanesque cathedral. Bardolino’s 11th century Romanesque church is one of the earliest examples of Romanesque architecture I’ve ever seen. And the church also has some astonishingly well-preserved 13th century frescoes—it was worth the long trek around the lake for this. We didn’t manage to fit in one of my must-see’s, Heller Garden in our circle of the lake but we did see it before we left town the next day. The Mediterranean Garden at Helller Garden

We’ve been to many Italian gardens—all very beautiful and well-designed, but usually a little bit unkempt. The Heller garden was weed free--no dead branches, no spent foliage and, like so many Italian gardens, there were fountains and waterfalls everywhere. We were very happy we made time for it.

We wished we had another day at Villa Giulia, but considering how expensive the wonderful hotel restaurant was, it was just as well we had to move on.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Verona’s Magical Old Town: The Northern Italy diaries, Part II

Piazza dei Signori
Gothic spires of the Scaliger Tombs

We now try to do no more than 2 hours driving per day, so we took several days to drive from Venice to Fiesole where we had rented an apartment. Our first stop was Verona.

We were there in the 1980’s and it was one of my all time favorite travel experiences. On a gorgeous summer night we heard La Gioconda in the open air theater in the old Roman amphitheater. It’s not my favorite opera but it was my all time favorite opera experience. The audience was so totally involved in the performance, shouting their approval when they liked what they heard and really shouting their disapproval when they did not. I had never seen such an engaged audience in my life.

This trip there was no time for the opera, but Verona was even more beautiful than I remembered. However, it has turned into a nightmare for drivers. Each time we have gone to Italy we’ve found that the traffic gets worse and worse. The number of cars on the road keeps increasing at a frightening pace and the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. The consequence is horrendous traffic gridlock and practically no parking spaces.

Also, GPS systems are not programmed for the narrow little lanes in the medieval warren of Verona’s old town. Finding our hotel literally took an entire afternoon. It was a charming small hotel but I wouldn’t recommend it as it is on a tiny, well-hidden street and there were no parking spaces within a ten block radius.

If we ever return to Verona, we now know how to do it--get a hotel that has parking on the periphery of old town, park the car for the duration of the stay and do everything on foot.

Verona has one of the most magical old towns in Italy and it was worth all the aggravation. I would love to go back and spend several days there just walking around the old town and hanging out on the many beautiful piazzas.

Friday, March 6, 2015

So happy to be back in Venice: The Northern Italy diaries, Part I




When we returned from our trip to Italy in October, I had so much garden work and election work to do that I decided to postpone posting my notes and photos, figuring that I’d really enjoy reliving this trip in the cold, miserable days of winter.

My husband and I both want to spend our last travel years in Europe; however, we're drawn to different parts of Europe. For Rick, it’s central and eastern Europe; for me it’s southern Europe. For his 70th birthday, we went to Krakow, Warsaw and Berlin. For mine this year, there was no question—it had to be Italy. This was our 8th trip to Italy together, including a six week trip during our magical, never to be forgotten 1999 sabbatical. But I’ll never get enough of Italy, never enough of Tuscany. This was our 4th trip to Tuscany and the plan initially was to fly into Milan, see some parts of Northern Italy we’ve never been to and then drive to Tuscany.

To our surprise we found out we could no longer get a direct flight from Philly to Milan. The only direct flight was to Venice. We had been to Venice 3 times before and I had reluctantly agreed that we had “done” Venice. I thought I was reconciled to never going to Venice again—after all we don’t have that many traveling years left and maybe 3 trips to Venice is enough.

But as soon as I learned the only way to fly direct to northern Italy was to go to Venice, I was ecstatically happy. I wasn’t as reconciled to never seeing Venice again as I had thought.

During our previous trips to Venice the weather was either hellishly hot and overcast or cold, gray and damp. This time in late September/ early October we had glorious weather. Venice has to be seen with brilliant sunshine—all those narrow dark streets opening up to sunlit squares, all that water reflecting dazzling bright blue skies.

We booked a hotel, Pensione Academia we had stayed in in the 90’s and really liked. Like the small once affordable—-but now crazily expensive-- hotels we used to book in Paris, the Academia was far more expensive than it had been in the 90’s--an increase way above the rate of inflation. But it was a birthday celebration, so we decided to splurge. Because we get tired more readily than we did in our early years traveling together, we make sure we get a hotel that‘s a good place for hanging out. The Academia with it’s lovely gardens is certainly a good hang-out place and both it and Venice is more magical than I remember.

Just like our first trip to Venice, my fondest memories are of having dinner at one of the cafes with outdoor tables along the Giudecca and taking an after dinner stroll on the banks of the canal.

Venice is an open air architectural museum and although I had some museums on my list, all I really wanted to do was walk around and take in the astonishing beauty.

I’m now hoping for one more trip to Venice.


photos by my friend Fran Gilmore who was also in Venice in October 2014