A Solo Weekend in San Sebastian with a Bilbao Day Trip

Last Wednesday morning, I got up so early that I’m sure some people were still out for the night to catch a flight to San Sebastian, also known as Donostia in the Basque language. After a couple weeks of traveling in a crowd, I was ready for a little alone time, and I was really excited to see San Sebastian, a town I’ve been longing to visit for years. (I think it started with The Sun Also Rises…)

The main attraction is food–San Sebastian is second only to Kyoto in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer, and I had reservations at two of them, Arzak and Mugaritz, both of which also feature on the World’s 50 Best list. The early flight, in fact, was made in the service of lunch at Arzak–I couldn’t get a dinner reservation, but it’s the same menu. And beyond the super fancy, San Sebastian is also famous for its pinxto bars: tiny restaurants that serve delectable small plates, which you eat standing up.

Beyond food, there’s not a lot going on. It’s a small town with three great beaches–even a surf break at one of them. The photo below sums up San Sebastian’s beach life; the dogs run free in that town. Unfortunately, three out of four days I was there were cold and rainy, so I spent a lot of time catching up on Netflix. There’s a museum, an aquarium, and loads of cute shops, but since I’m living out of a suitcase for a year, I took the time to recharge.

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On Saturday, the sun finally came out, and I attempted to cram a long weekend’s worth of tourism into a day. First up, a trip to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao, which is an easy hour and fifteen minute bus ride from San Sebastian, a drive that winds through beautiful mountainous countryside.

The Guggenheim, like so many things, was smaller than I’d imagined, but lovely. The building itself is fascinating; every angle gives you a fresh perspective:

The main exhibition was Abstract Expressionism, and they had some interesting and significant works, though I have to admit that period leaves me a little cold. I was listening to the audio guide as I browsed, and while I’m fascinated by the artists’ processes, and I can intellectually understand the idea of creating a reaction through color or shape, rather than specific forms, it just doesn’t do much for me, much in the same way that I don’t like house music–my book-obsessed brain longs for narrative.

But I always look for at least one new painting to fall in love with, and at this museum, that was Anselm Kiefer’s The Renowned Orders of the Night. The photo doesn’t do it justice; it’s breathtaking in its scale.

Back in San Sebastian, I braved the hordes of children heading up to the rides at the tiny, rickety amusement park at the top of Monte Igueldo to get this breathtaking view of the city.

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It was interesting–I don’t know if it’s because it was Saturday, or it was finally sunny, or the combo of the two, but I’d been thinking that San Sebastian was the sleepiest little town, just some surfers and a lot of old people, all of whom seemed to know each other, and hundreds of adorable pups. But then the sun comes out, and all of a sudden, the beach walkway is packed, and I’m fighting my way through the streets of Old Town like it’s Times Square.

I went to a pinxto bar recommended by none other  than Anthony Bourdain, La Cuchara de San Telmo. Really, you’re supposed to do a pinxto crawl, but I only had it in me to elbow my way through one insanely crowded bar. It really is a bit of a fight, and then you’re left standing up eating gourmet food as if it were a bad canape at a reception. But I had delicious veal cheeks and pig’s feet in romesco sauce and suckling pig with an apple sauce (all the food my mom would refuse to eat, basically) and called it a night.

It was a slightly disappointing weekend, if I’m being honest, just because I’d built the city up so much in my mind–the difference between travel expectations and reality is something I think about often. And it was definitely one of those times, where if I hadn’t been flying solo, I might have been pushed to do more and explore further. But sometimes travel can be about recovery as much as discovery.

The only truly sour note of the weekend came as I was trying to leave at 7 AM on a Sunday morning. There were no taxis at the stand (you can’t hail one), and the promised 7:15 bus didn’t arrive. The taxi companies weren’t answering their phones. One group of people, just going home from the bars, promised to call me a cab from another town, but then they took the first one, and their drunk friends surrounded me and shooed me down the street, mocking me from the windows of the taxi that was supposed to be mine as they drove by.

Back at the taxi stand, another group of men came by and started talking to the girl standing next to me. In Spanglish, they offered me first a ride, then the open containers of beer they were holding–for obvious reasons, I accepted neither. I finally got through to a company and mustered enough college Spanish to communicate, “Necesito un taxi. Voy a aeropuerto. Estoy a Idiakez.” Not the most elegant turns of phrase, but a taxi did appear–which the other girl tried to take, since she was next in line. We communicated, insofar as we were able, and agreed that the taxi would drop her home first and then take me. Luckily (who has ever thought this?), my flight was delayed an hour, or I probably would have missed it.

So I suppose all’s well that ends well, and I never felt like I was in real danger–but it was a slightly dicey moment for a solo female traveler with only a moderate grasp on the language.

Nevertheless, I’m happy I saw the town and ate (some of) the food. It’s changed a lot from the quiet fishing village Hemingway visited, but it still has a certain charm.

 

 

The Double Date That Wasn’t

2 + 2 =

Last weekend, my new friend and travel mate, Abby, thought it would be fun to do a double date. I was supposed to see a flamenco show with a guy I’d been talking to on OkCupid who was visiting Barcelona from Belgrade (our September stop–hoping to line things up in advance; I’m very pragmatic). Abby had never seen flamenco, so she hopped on her phone to find a fourth. Over lunchtime beers, this all seemed like a great plan.

By the time we were in the cab on the way to pre-flamenco drinks, our plan looked like it might be devolving into a third-wheel situation. Abby’s date was skeptical of the entire concept of the double date–perhaps it’s not so common in Spain?–sending messages like:

  • “I don’t understand why we’re going out with your friend. Can’t we have a date just the two of us?”
  • “Is this a group sex thing?”

But he kept promising that he was on his way–as soon as he got off work, changed his shirt, ran a couple errands…the excuses evolved over the course of the evening. Nevertheless, we soldiered on and were soon sitting across from my date, whom, to protect the privacy of the asinine, we’ll call Mark.

Allow me to be blunt: Mark was not attractive. Revisiting his profile later, I realized how strategic his photos were. So, all dolled up in my Friday night red-lipsticked best, that was disappointing. But he gave good text, so I had my fingers crossed for some scintillating conversation.

Then, ten minutes after we sat down, Mark told us about Helen, another girl he met on OkCupid, with whom he’d spent the entire week, sharing a room by night and exploring Barcelona by day. “I hope she might come by later,” he said casually, as if this were a perfectly normal thing to tell someone when you’re supposed to be on a date.

So at this point, two girls. One guy. The promise of a potential third girl. No actual dates happening. But there were mojitos on special and some delicious pesto bread, so we continued.

Getting the bill in Spain is always a process, and I wanted to regroup with Abby about our plans for the evening, so I sent Mark ahead to get seats for the flamenco show. When we were halfway there, Mark messaged to say there were no seats left; we’d arrived too late. There went the entire premise of the evening.

At this point, I was ready to bail and tried to convince Abby we should find another bar with different, better boys. It was Friday night, we were dressed up, it was Barcelona. But she was committed–to the idea that Mark could hook us up in Belgrade, to the possibility that her date (still messaging! still promising!) might come through, maybe even to the narrative itself.

So we moved to a different table on the main square of El Raval and waited for Mark to rejoin us–he seemed mysteriously committed to the evening as well. The waiter approached and asked, “Drinks? Mojitos?”

It’s like he knew us.

Mark came back and proceeded to tell us the FULL story of his romance with Helen, complete with photos. It was like a fairy tale, right up to the point where Helen apparently broke his heart the night before. Guess that’s why he decided to meet up with me? (Pro tip: don’t tell the girl you’re on a date with that she’s a consolation prize.)

Figuring this obliterated the need for any vestige of politeness, Abby and I were blatantly on our phones at this point. She started a thread on our We Roam Slack so that everyone might delight in a little schadenfreude. She also surreptitiously took photos of Mark showing us photos of Helen (they’re hilarious, but I’m too nice to post them). And we were both swiping through Tinder, still trying to make an actual double date out of the evening.

After forty-five minutes or so, I hooked one. Let’s-call-him-Diego was on his way and promised to bring a friend for Abby.

Half an hour later, Diego showed up alone. Alone and fully twenty-five years older than his late 20s-looking Tinder pics. 50 at least. Balding.

I contemplated karma as I scurried across the street to meet him, vaguely explaining that Mark was someone we’d met recently, and he was a little weird, so Diego should just ignore him. Not the world’s best cover story, but I was five or six mojitos deep.

We shared an awkward cocktail, over which Diego explained the finer points of Spain’s governmental structure, and then Abby and I agreed via WhatsApp that it was time to go.

“We have to volunteer REALLY early,” I announced as I stood up. “This has been lots of fun, but our volunteer work is so important to us.” (I’m smarmy when I’m irritated.)

But the fun wasn’t over yet. Diego offered to drive us home, we accepted, and then Mark–still in it to win it–insisted that Diego should drive him to our place as well, and it would be easy for him to walk from there.

Up to my eyeballs in bullshit, I asked Mark where he was staying, pulled up Google maps on my phone, and showed him that his Airbnb was just a ten minute walk from the square, while our place was 30 minutes farther away, and for that reason, we would be parting ways immediately. (Abby has photos of this, too.) I couldn’t have been more clear if I’d had a projector and a pointer.

He drunkenly acquiesced, and we waved goodbye as we speed walked down the street. One awkward car ride and a quick double cheek kiss later, we were free. Free to head upstairs to have a bottle of wine nightcap and regale our friends with the already legendary tale.

Instead of a double date, two dates. At one table. Both of them terrible. With a chaperone. Not exactly the romantic foreign escapade I’ve been imagining.

 

Was this the kind of date you all thought I’d be having in Spain? Anyone care to top my bad date anecdote? Commiserate below!

A Long Barcelona Stroll: Parc de la Ciutadella, El Born, and Barri Gotic

Our Barcelona apartments (which bear more of a resemblance to dorms, but oh well) are sort of in a no-man’s land. Poblenou is the closest neighborhood, but we’re definitely not in it. But we are equidistant from a lot of wonderful things, and we’re an easy 20-minute walk to El Born, an adorable old neighborhood packed with shops and bars. The other day I took a photo stroll the long way round…

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My first meandering point was the Parc de la Ciutadella. It’s massive (70 acres), and it has museums, the zoo, and a lake you can row on, amidst other delights. You can even have a training session if you want to…

 

 

 

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Or, if you’re like me, you can just walk around, read on the grass for a while, and take some photos. My favorite shot is below–I hate those obnoxious bubble gun salesmen, but I love how the bubbles look against the fountain:

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From the Parc, you cross the street and enter El Born, full of adorably winding side streets like this one…DSC_0039

…and loads of street art and charming details:

I paused to have lunch at an outdoor table. Sadly, the restaurants with terraces often don’t have the best food in the city, but basic tapas are universal, and I was perfectly content with croquettes, salad, and padron peppers in the sunshine.

Next, I crossed Via Laietana into Barri Gotic, or the Gothic Quarter. It has a very similar vibe as El Born; if you aren’t looking at a map, you wouldn’t know they were two neighborhoods. But there are some nice Gothic* touches. Asterisked because apparently some of the lovely details were created for the 1929 International Exposition. One of my travel mates is infuriated by Barcelona’s penchant for recreation; he told me yesterday that Italy is better because it’s actually old. But I say, what the hell, as long as it’s pretty.

The Gothic Quarter also contains my favorite square (so far, at least), the Placa Reial. It’s lined with delicious restaurants and fun bars (try Sidecar if you want to dance to 80s music), and don’t tell my friend, but it reminds me of Piazza Navona in Rome.

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Hope you enjoyed taking this stroll with me! There are so many Barcelona neighborhoods still to explore, and only two weeks left to walk through them. Travel anxiety is real.

If I’m the New Girl, Where’s My Tiara?

New Girl Tiara

When I signed up for We Roam in March, I thought about joining their itinerary that launches in July, Orion. I knew I wanted to be gone for at least a year, and the idea of starting from the beginning with a group really appealed to me. But, once I decided to leave, I wanted to get going ASAP, and I was lured in by the prospect of Barcelona in May (spoiler alert: it’s fabulous).

So I agreed to join Polaris, the inaugural We Roam tour, and hop into a group that’s been traveling together since January. There have been a few new additions and a few departures, and I’m one of five to join this month. But the other four new recruits are guys, so…

I’m the new girl.

The last time I was the new girl was in high school, when I transferred schools halfway through my junior year. It didn’t go well, to put it mildly. The other students had been together since preschool for the most part, and the cliques were well formed. Coming in as the new girl meant harassment and capital-D Drama.

I’m happy to say that this is going better. Whether it’s age or just a correlation between the type of person who signs up for this program and a certain level of chill, everyone’s been very welcoming. I’ve had drinks and dinner (and played quarters, but let’s not talk about that right now) with a bunch of different people; the clique factor seems uncommonly low.

Which is good, because that’s honestly the only thing I was worried about coming into this trip. Everyone else was concerned about exchanging money or how I’d stay in touch or whether I’ll get mugged at some point (I mean, possibly). I felt like, all of that will be fine, but as someone used to spending a lot of time alone–hence the blog name–is traveling around with a big group of people going to suck?

So far, it doesn’t. Yay! But even with a relatively smooth transition, they’re still learning about me–and vice versa.

You don’t get very many opportunities in life to make a wholly fresh start. Maybe college, grad school, a few moves–but the longer you’ve lived, the higher the chance that you know at least one person wherever you go who will be able to tell your old stories. So coming into this trip, knowing absolutely no one, I have a little bit of freedom, a chance to show my idealized self, if I choose.

But I think for the most part, I’m just being me. Maybe a more extroverted version of myself, but I’m sure that will balance out over the next few weeks. I’ll admit that part of the drama in high school was my fault–unsure of myself, I tried to be what I thought they wanted. At 33, I’m pretty settled in my personality: I like fancy food and hate spin class. I read. A lot. I hate futbol but love football. I’m an incorrigible flirt with bad follow through. I like to dress up but hate heels.

I’m still willing to try new things, but I’m no longer formless; my personality has parameters.

And everyone on this trip with me has the same opportunity to present the version of themselves they wish me to see. Given that a few of them are here because of pretty seismic life events, they might be taking advantage of that. I wouldn’t know. One guy spent half of my first night trying to convince me his name was Steve. It is not anywhere close to Steve, and that was a pretty rude thing to do to a girl meeting 30 new people on zero hours of sleep. He was properly chastised.

Beyond the individuals, though, I’m also meeting the group. Everyone else has been together for at least a month; some of them have been together for four months. They have shared history, experiences, inside jokes. Relationships of all sorts have come together and fallen apart. Over the past week and a half, I’ve been putting together a puzzle and discovering new pieces every day. I’ll probably never have all of them–and I’m adding pieces of my own as I go. But I’m happy with what the overall picture looks like.

One of my fellow Roamers pointed out that I’ll only be the new girl for a month. He was a new guy last month, and next month in Prague, we’ll get a few more. I told him that given that, I wanted a tiara. Instead of anxiety, I think a new girl celebration is in order.

 

A Sunday Stroll in Barcelona’s Palo Alto Market

If you find yourself in Barcelona on the first weekend of the month (except for August), I highly recommend making your way into the Poblenou neighborhood to visit the Palo Alto Market. This vibrant, elevated flea market was the perfect complement to my beach day Saturday. And it’s the perfect antidote to the widespread Sunday restaurant closures.

The market’s open Saturday and Sunday from 11 am-9 pm. I was there from about 12:30-2:30–it wasn’t too crowded when I first arrived, but by the time I left, it was IMG_20170507_124050995packed. I started my visit with patatas bravas (natch, I could live on those) to fortify me for exploration.

A “design” market more so than a flea market, the stalls lean towards cute local goods: sunglasses, canvas bags, handmade jewelry, small-batch clothing–like Etsy brought to life, none of the used t-shirts and antique spoon collections you might find at a regular flea market (though I love a good treasure hunt at those). And the setting, a garden at an old factory, perfectly matches the content. Instead of an empty parking lot, the grounds are beautifully landscaped, and the market winds around the trails and through multiple buildings, the live music swelling and and fading as you turn the corners.

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A 4 euro entry fee gets you access to a gorgeous garden and dozens of stalls selling delicious food and fun merch. Well worth a visit, if you have enough time in Barcelona to venture beyond the main tourist attractions; several of my friends went both Saturday and Sunday, and we all wish it were open more than one weekend a month!

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Over 6,000 km from home–and loving it.

Embarking on a Year of Travel

keep in touchThis is the first day in my new co-working space in Barcelona, where I’ll be living for the month of May. Then I’ll move to Prague, then Berlin, Split, Belgrade…then on to various cities in Southeast Asia, Australia, and South America. This is the beginning of my journey with We Roam, a travel program for people who can work remotely.

I started this blog in January, before I knew that We Roam (or similar programs like Remote Year, The Remote Experience, etc.) existed. I wanted a side project, an outlet apart from work, and I envisioned Girl Flies Solo as essentially branding (gah, I know, that word is becoming terrible) what I already do: travel a lot, often alone, date, have random solo adventures.

Then in mid-February, I clicked on an article in AFAR: Working Remotely Is Now Easier Than Ever, and it felt like I’d opened a portal to a new world. I fell down the internet rabbit hole, reading blogs and Reddit threads, trying to learn more. By the end of the month, I’d decided I wanted to sign up for one of these programs, and by early March, I’d committed to join We Roam in May.

I knew after I visited Anguilla that I wanted to travel more this year. After four years in New York, I’ve grown a little weary–fighting with the crowds on the sidewalks, going back and forth with my friends’ Google calendars to schedule drinks, seeing the same guys pop up on all the dating apps. This program is more than I could have imagined or hoped for when I contemplated “traveling more.”

I don’t believe in fate or god or any forces that are guiding the universe; I think our experiences are random. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, the random bits of the universe collide to give you exactly what you need.

So I’m off on an adventure! I’m lucky enough to have a job that’s perfectly suited for this kind of controlled madness and a boss who recognized immediately what a fantastic opportunity it is. We Roam sets up housing and co-working spaces in each city and moves us from place to place, so all I have to do is get my work done and enjoy every new experience.

Before I left, friends and family tossed out their hypotheses: I’ll never come home. I’ll be traveled out and exhausted after six months. I’ll fall in love with a man. I’ll fall in love with a city.

I don’t know what the year will bring–what I’ll see, everywhere I’ll go, or whom I’ll be by the end. But I’m excited to find out.

A Long Weekend in Charleston

At the very end of March, I met a friend who lives in D.C. in Charleston for a Friday-Monday weekend of fun. Charleston is the perfect city for a weekend getaway: Southern food, historic buildings, ocean breezes, unironic bowties, and strong drinks.

And late March is a great time to visit in terms of weather (low 70s for the win), though I’d check the city calendar if your dates are flexible. We were there the weekend of the Bridge Run, a 10k across Ravenel Bridge. It didn’t put much of a damper on our plans–we weren’t up and moving on Saturday until the race was over–but we did spend all weekend telling Uber drivers, “No, we didn’t do the Bridge Run…no, we didn’t know it was happening.” Or I guess you could go to Charleston FOR the Bridge Run, if you’re into that…you do you.

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Do you really want to run across that? It’s more of a hill than it looks!

We landed late afternoon Friday and went to our hotel, the Mills House, to drop our bags. The airport is an easy half hour ride from downtown; they have shared taxis for $14 or an Uber is about $30. The Mills House is perfectly situated downtown; the rooms are a tiny bit dated, especially the bathrooms, but it’s very comfortable.

Friday night we had drinks at The Gin Joint, and they are not messing around with those cocktails. In addition to a solid menu, they have a list of words to choose from: pick any two, and the bartender will make you something. I got a drink that was “refreshing” and “spicy”–it was also delicious. But to be honest, the cocktails were a bit of a mistake because I was already slightly buzzed, when we got to the main event for the night: the tasting menu at McCrady’s, complete, of course, with wine pairings.IMG_5475IMG_5462

We had 15 delicious plates, seated at long, high tables with just a small handful of other diners and the chefs working nearby. There wasn’t an off note on the menu, but my personal favorite was the carrot tart. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, the carrots just tasted exactly like carrots. But the dish that won best presentation is pictured on the right–the Virginia Oyster, a single, gorgeous bite with a plateful of pomp.

We got a late start on Saturday, after tipsily going to another bar after dinner, but it was a perfect, sunshiney day. We stopped in at the very adorable City Lights for coffee to fortify us for a long walk up King Street, the main shopping drag (mostly chains, but a few independent boutiques mixed in). Determined to eat my weight in carbs, we stopped in for biscuit brunch at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. For less than ten dollars, I got FOUR biscuits–two cheddar and chive with ham, two buttermilk with cinnamon butter. Heaven, basically.

Then we walked and walked and walked–through the Market, (which is mostly junk, but I did find a lovely vintage jewelry stand of course), out to Waterfront Park, where I took that lovely photo of Ravenel Bridge above, down along the Battery, with a nice recovery sit in White PDSC_1092oint Garden, where we watched people get engagement and wedding photos taken and a true hero assemble a DIY hammock.

In the early evening, we took a house tour with the Charleston Historic Foundation, as part of their annual Festival of Houses and Gardens. We went into about half a dozen homes on the Church Street Tour, and it was fascinating to see how people restored and renovated these centuries-old homes, preserving the old while allowing for modern conveniences. Our tour wrapped just after 8, and we finished the evening with a tasty–though not a standout–meal at The Grocery.

Sunday was my favorite day. It started with gospel brunch at Halls Chophouse, and I can’t imagine a better Sunday morning. The music was gorgeous, and the baby back ribs and sweet tea I had took me back to my Southern childhood (I could kill a rack before age 10, and I have the sticky face photos to prove it). We had caramel cake for dessert because obviously, dessert with breakfast is a must on vacation.

We hopped in an Uber after brunch for a 30-minute trip over the bridge and through Mt. Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island, where we took a walk on the beach that was the hDSC_1109ighlight of my weekend. The wind was serious; most people laying out were hiding back in the dunes. But the sun was out, and the wind was perfect for kite surfers, who we watched fly through the air. Even better than the acrobatics, though, were the sandpipers scurrying around the shore and dodging the waves. It was a fun camera challenge for me–they move fast.

There are a few cute bars and restaurants with big patios on the strip of road just up from the beach, but on a sunny Sunday, they were packed, so we opted to head back to the hotel, drink some wine in the courtyard, then lounge on the pool deck for a bit. Later on, we went for pre-dinner cocktails at the Vendue Hotel rooftop bar. It was too windy, but we were determined. The view is pretty, and the drinks are tropical.

Dinner that night was the showstopper: Husk, which is famous for a reason. We had pig’s ear lettuce wraps to start (I know some of you are grimacing, but the flavor and texture were fantastic), and then I had a perfectly cooked (too rare!) and seasoned pork chop. Dessert was the pinnacle, though, which it never is for me. I’d usually prefer a second appetizer, but the blueberry “cobbler”–in quotes because they were actually bite-sized pieces of herbaceous pie crust instead of the traditional format–with goat cheese ice cream was one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.

We went to bed early that night and made the most of our final morning, starting with breakfast at Hominy Grill. I’ve heard it gets crazy on the weekends (it’s become a bit of a tourist attraction), but on a Monday, we were able to get a seat right away for our Charleston Nasty Biscuits, with fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese, and sausage gravy. After dessert (of course), we Ubered to the Angel Oak on Johns Island. It’s a bit of a haul for a tree, but it really is beautiful.

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As full as the weekend was, we didn’t quite get to everything. Charleston has gorgeous museums, and there’s a slice of coconut cake with my name on it at the Peninsula Grill. But we hit a lot of the highlights, and we definitely ATE a lot of the highlights.

Have you been to Charleston? What were your favorite spots? Let me know if you have any questions about the city, too. And for more photos, make sure to follow my Instagram.