The Lantern Bearers

IMG_1903An extraordinary essay by Megan Craig, “The Courage to Be Alone” (NYT, May 1, 2020), is about much more than its title suggests: not only the courage to be alone, but also the hidden light and joy in people’s ordinary lives. She describes taking a walk through the woods with her youngest daughter, and talking both with her and apart from her, listening and not listening, being quiet and being pulled back into conversation. She hopes that these walks will stay with her daughter and one day give her strength. They are not just about being present for each other, or for nature, or for anything; rather, they are about glimpses along the way, those sudden streams of words, or the sight of a flower on the path, incomplete, unfinished, and never fully known. She writes:

Suddenly I am reminded of William James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in which he writes about the difficulty of being present to another person’s life. James uses a Robert Louis Stevenson story of young boys who form a secret club of “lantern bearers,” hiding small tin lanterns under their heavy coats as a secret emblem of participation. From the outside they look just like anyone else hurrying by in the cold night. But when they meet one another, they lift the edge of their coats to reveal a hot burning light hanging from a belt loop. I have always loved the image of these kids hiding fire, their faces momentarily illuminated to one another in lamplight, triumphant in their allegiance to the game.

Her references to William James and Emmanuel Lévinas–as well as songs by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and September 67–demand time and patience, since to understand them, you need to go read and listen to them (again, if you already have). In a sense, this time and patience is the point of it all: being willing to listen to someone else, even to oneself, without looking at the watch and rushing off to the next thing. But this listening will always be flawed, even at its best; there is always something that we miss, not just in the details, but at the center of it all. So part of the “courage to be alone” has to do with understanding the imperfection, resisting the temptation to sum up others, or an encounter, or the world at large, in our minds. “And now,” asks James, “what is the result of all these considerations and quotations?” (His essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” quotes Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, and others.) He replies:

It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.

I have been painting the smaller room of my new place (not the room pictured here, which I will leave as is). I am not an experienced painter–I have painted before, but not in a long time–but I have been finding my way into it. It’s a small enough room that I can give it several coats without trouble. I start to work out a technique and a rhythm. And now I understand what friends over time were trying to convey when talking about their home remodeling projects. When you are alone with the materials and your place, you get to test things out, make mistakes, try again. It’s exciting when you finally get it right, but even the errors have their fun when they aren’t disastrous.

I have been exploring the new neighborhood on bike and on foot–looking at walls, through empty buildings, down streets.

It is not just their beauty that excites me, but the thought of getting to know them little by little over time, seeing them through the seasons, and sometimes not fully noticing them. There is something reciprocal in this. In giving time to a person or place, in letting the acquaintance be imperfect, I, too, am given time; I too, have a chance to be known and unknown and unfinished. So we meet like lantern bearers.

Memorials Upon Memorials

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Today is Memorial Day of the Hungarian Victims of the Holocaust. One year ago, at the end of the day, I joined in a memorial run and then danced with others outside the former synagogue. But earlier in the day I was feeling bad (even sorry for myself) because a lesson on poetic song verse had seemed not to go so well.

But such lessons need to happen too. This year, I would have given a lot to have a not-so-successful lesson in an actual classroom. The online classes have had their beauty; much good has come out of them. But it is strange to be saying goodbye to seniors without seeing them in person.

There were no Holocaust memorial events in Szolnok today, online or otherwise, as far as I know. So I went on a memorial bike ride. I first biked to the Holocaust monument (pictured above) at the site where Szolnok’s first synagogue used to be, by the Pelikán. Then I went to the Szolnok Gallery (formerly a synagogue), and visited the memorial stone next to it. It is usually covered with little stones that visitors have left, but the stones were gone for some reason, maybe because of the recent winds.

From there, I biked along the Tisza, and then along Tószégi út, to the site of the old sugar factory; this is where the Jews were forced to stay before deportation to the concentration camps. I had gone there last year, for the memorial run, but because I took a bus there, I didn’t see the surroundings. This year, I cycled around the area; parts look like no one has touched them in fifty, seventy, a hundred years.

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It took some doing–and a conversation with a friendly security guard–but I found the sugar factory sign and the memorial plaque.

On the way there, along the Tisza, I picked up a nice little stone, so on my way back home, I stopped by the stone memorial again and laid my stone on it.

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The side plaque quotes Psalm 23, Verse 4:

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ד  גַּם כִּי-אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת, לֹא-אִירָא רָע–    כִּי-אַתָּה עִמָּדִי
.שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ   הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; {N}
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

 

Besides remembering last year, and another time I laid a stone on a grave, I was in the middle of memorials not my own, as though I were biking through a past that I had not lived. I also thought of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “A Pelikántól a cukorgyárig” (“From the Pelikán to the Sugar Factory”), which appears both on his blog and in his newly-released third book of stories, Az eltűnt városháza, which I received today, to my joy, after returning home.

I am sorry that there was no memorial gathering today; at the same time, biking by myself to these places, I could notice and feel things that I wouldn’t have in a group. And I think of the others who may have taken memorial walks and bike rides, who may have laid down stones, who may have passed through known and unknown pasts.

 

Simplify (Once or Twice)

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In Walden, Thoreau wrote: “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify.” Emerson is said to have commented, “One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed” (or something along those lines). I haven’t been able to verify this yet, but I see his purported point. Then again, it’s possible to simplify once and then simplify all over again.

Like many, I often comment on how much I have to do, but actually I am trying to keep some simplicity. It’s good not to be frazzled. With possessions, I am no ascetic, but I can live contentedly with books, CDs, clothes, a few kitchen supplies, some furniture, a few special items, a laptop with internet connection, a couple of musical instruments, and my bicycle. As far as a home goes, it doesn’t have to be big; if it has room for these things and me, and a cat, and guests now and then, that’s enough.

I am buying an apartment here in Szolnok–a beautiful little place, cozy rather than spacious. This summer I will sort out some belongings. Some things will stay in storage in NYC. Some things will move over here.  Some things will go (to charity if possible).

But back to Thoreau: pooh-pooh him all you like (because his mom supposedly did his laundry while he lived out in the woods and wrote about self-sufficiency); call him out, if you like, on the redundancy of “simplify, simplify”–but admit that he’s right about the “chopping sea of civilized life” and the principle of living by “dead reckoning.” A bit of simplicity is not surrender; it’s a staple. Like rice, it allows for feasts, fasting, and thousands of spices and sauces.

I took the photo this week while biking just past my current apartment.

Holocaust Memorials in Szolnok

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There are at least three Holocaust memorials in Szolnok: a large one in Szolnok Plaza, in the area of the former Jewish ghetto (and precisely where Szolnok’s first synagogue used to be); another by the old sugar factory, from where the Jews of Szolnok were deported to Auschwitz, and this one here, across the walkway from the large synagogue, now a gallery. This one looks so fragile; it’s small and weathered, it seems it could tumble, but it holds up. There are always little stones on it (it’s a Jewish tradition to lay stones upon gravestones and memorials), and you feel that someone is looking after it, day after day.

There are memorials in writing, too. I am about to translate Zsolt Bajnai’s story “A Pelikántól a cukorgyárig,” “From the Pelikan to the Sugar Factory.” (The Pelikán Hotel is where the Jewish ghetto used to be.) The morning I read it, I bawled. I am sure that someone will want to publish the English translation once it is ready, so I will add the link here as soon as the published version comes into being.

Elie Wiesel said (in an interview, I think): “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead.” (Thanks to Ari Rubin for reminding me of this quote.)

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Old School in Hungary: Part 1

Old_School_coverWhy would I choose to teach Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to 33 ninth-graders (in two sections) here in Szolnok? The first answer is that I saw a chance to do so, a chance that might not come back any time soon. If I didn’t take this chance, there’s no telling that they would ever read the novel, and I knew it would be worthwhile for them, even though (and especially because) they wouldn’t understand everything right away. It would not be forgotten.

We had our first lesson last week. Before we opened the book, I showed them pictures of Nixon and Kennedy. I asked them, on the basis of the pictures, who they would vote for. They selected Kennedy (unanimously, I think), mostly because he was the more familiar of the two. I asked them which of the two they could more easily imagine at Varga, our school. Again Kennedy. Why? He seemed like one of them, just older and part of the past and a different country and culture. Maybe this, too, had to do with the familiarity, the way his lore had entered their lives.

Then we opened up and read the beginning.

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all.

They were hooked, or at least interested. It wasn’t just that the prelude helped them understand the opening sentence. Rather, they understood what came later: the narrator’s discussion of class, an unmentioned topic at a boys’ elite boarding school that professed to uphold “a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.” They understood how the school could exist at two levels: that of its ideals, and that of its undercurrents.

But would they understand these boys who were vying for the literary award, whose prize was the honor of a private audience with a famous visiting writer, who would select the winning piece? They have known nothing quite like this; they take part in contest upon contest, but the prize is money, an academic award, or some modest fame.

But they realized quickly that they did not have to match the story directly to their lives. It unrolls its own meaning. They grasped a passage that explains (at least partly) why the boys cared so much about that competition: the narrator talks about writers who were welcomed by other writers (p. 7):

My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.

Even if the students reading this had never wished to be anointed themselves (and I imagine a few had), they could imagine these boys battling their hearts out for the prize.

Today, in our second session, we read the part with Hartmut’s tune, Gershon, and Dean Makepeace: the narrator unwittingly learns a Nazi tune at YMCA camp from the chef, Hartmut; whistles it later at school, in the presence of Gershon, a handyman who (unbeknownst to the boy) is a Holocaust survivor; and is summoned by Dean Makepeace for an explanation. Some students picked up on details: they recognized the time period, noticed that Hartmut was Austrian and understood what this might mean; they understood that the narrator hadn’t realized that he was whistling a Nazi melody in Gershon’s presence, but that for Gershon it brought back the sick cruelty and degradation of the concentration camp. They understood, also, what was missing from the narrator’s apology to Gershon: how he held back the fact that his own father was Jewish. (He reveals it to the reader just at the moment that he admits that he didn’t say it to Gershon–or to Dean Makepeace.)

One student thought that if the boy had told Gershon that his father was Jewish, he would have been trying to get Gershon’s sympathy, instead of offering sympathy. He has a point there. But we were all left thinking, along with the narrator in retrospect, that the apology was lacking–not just imperfect, but dishonest. We talked, especially in the first section, about what makes a genuine apology: how it requires opening yourself up to pain, acknowledging the pain that you have caused. (I do not believe in perfect apologies; nor does this book, I think. Apologies don’t have to follow a script or check all the boxes. But they require a basic willingness to see and be seen.)

It so happened that we read the passage about Gershon today, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it brought even more intensity to the discussion, especially in the earlier session. (One of the two sections meets with me on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the other on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.) It was striking that the narrator didn’t portray himself as noble. After imagining a melodramatic story of reconciliation and bonding between himself and Gershon, he rejects the idea (p. 23):

Fat chance. I wanted out of there, and I was confiding nothing. I’d let Gershon think the worst of me before I would claim any connection to him, or implicate myself in the fate that had benched him in this room. Why would I want to talk my way into his unlucky tribe? All this came over me as a gathering sense of suffocation. I stammered out a final apology and left, taking the stairs at a run as soon as the door clicked shut behind me.

Forget about “relating.” Who in the world has not done this? Who has not rejected a human connection, simply because it seemed too inconvenient, too unlucky, too miserable?

No wonder the boys in this story throw themselves into the writing contest. The narrator suspects the same: “Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class” (p. 24). It seems to them, ironically, that to be a writer is even to escape yourself. At the end of the first chapter, everything seems to come together, just momentarily.

It is not an easy book. The words, details, references, ideas, emotions, evasions, and bare truths would be a lot for some college students, not to mention ninth graders. But here we are, and such chances do not come every day. They will be able to reread the book in the near and far future. The copies are theirs. But they can’t reread it unless they’ve read it in the first place. That’s why we’re doing this now. Some students will respond to it more than others, or in different ways from others–the “they” is a generalization–but that, too, is part of the point. For a few students, this is already a revelation. They didn’t know that writing could be like this–but what is “this”?

We will find out as we go along. I have read the book four or five times and returned to certain passages repeatedly over the years. I have carried it in my mind. I have written about it on this blog. But I didn’t know what it would be like to read it aloud with my students, to hear the words, to sound them out in time. I will write about this as we go along–not describing every class session, but keeping track of this so that we can look back on it later.

I am grateful to my colleague Marianna, who made this possible. While we read onward, she will continue working through the textbook with them. They are already far along in the textbook, so we have some room. Last week and this week we have been reviewing for a test, but beginning next Monday, they will focus on Old School in all their classes with me, until we finish reading it. I can’t wait to see and hear what comes.

I made some edits to this piece (for clarity) after posting it.

This is the first in a series of posts about reading Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School with ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

A Great Lecture and Bike Ride

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This evening I bicycled to Szandaszőlős, a suburb of Szolnok, to hear Zsolt Bajnai speak about Szolnok between the world wars. When crossing the Tisza, I stopped to look at the Tiszavirág Bridge, which looked ghostly in the distance. The bike path went along the road, for the most part; but when crossing Route 4, it dipped downhill and passed through three tunnels.IMG_0827
Soon I arrived at Szandaszőlős and was amazed by the majestic houses. I might have been to Szandaszőlős before, but not to this part. (The building on the left is the confectionery, the “cukrászda”; the one on the right is someone’s house, I think.)

Finally I made it to the House of Culture and to the lecture. It was great. I learned about various buildings, sculptures, and other landmarks, including the old bridge (which was bombed in World War II), the boys’ school, the girls’ school, the Tisza Hotel (and the unfulfilled plans to expand it), the beach on the banks of the Tisza, the stores in the Town Hall, the Nerfeld-palota, and much more.

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The return trip was much quicker than the trip out there, since by then I knew the way. I rode back the way I came, through Szandaszőlős, through the tunnels, along the bike path, across the Tisza, then along the Zagyva and back home. Here is a backward look along the Zagyva. A good end to the day.

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A Great Tuesday Evening

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I had planned to spend most of the afternoon reading Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, from which Grecsó will read on Thursday when he visits our school and the library. Before today, I was about thirty pages into it. I figured I would read for five hours or so. But I got home only to realize that I had left the book at school–and I was planning to see the movie Seveled at 8:15 at the Tisza Mozi. It seemed best to go back to school, pick up the book, bike on down to the Tisza Mozi, and read for a few hours at the cinema’s café. I read up to page 109, without a dictionary, and expect to reach at least the halfway point tomorrow. It’s a wonderful novel and–assuming I keep this up at a reasonable pace–the first novel I will have read in Hungarian.

Seveled (directed by Dénes Orosz) was bittersweet and funny, with some intense beauty. I read about it on blogSzolnok and decided to see it. And I understood it! That was a happy surprise, since it was the first Hungarian comedy film I had seen. In some ways, comedy is easy to understand–a comic situation is often recognizable–but in other ways, it’s more difficult than the weightier genres. So it was really rewarding to get the jokes and laugh along with others. There were many good things about this film, but I especially loved the mother character (played by Juli Básti).

And then there was the bike ride home. To return from the Tisza Mozi, I just have to go north on Szapáry (which has a generous bike lane) and then make a few short turns. It’s a five- or ten-minute ride–and where the path is clear, I pedal full speed.

Here is a photo from earlier in the day, on Batthyány Street, where the pet supply store is located (but this isn’t a photo of the shop). I got a few things for my cat Minnaloushe and then walked home in the rain, enjoying this street (I had not brought my bike to school, knowing that I would have some big things to carry home). So, come to think of it, it was a pretty good day–and I haven’t even brought up the teaching, which went well too.

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Szolnok’s First Golden Age

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This evening I went to a lecture by Zsolt Bajnai on Szolnok’s first golden age (from 1867 to 1914). I learned about buildings I see every day, buildings I have never seen (because they don’t exist any more), buildings that have partly remained, and the ways of life associated with them. Mr. Bajnai showed photographs and postcards of the buildings that now house the Varga Katalin Gimnázium and the Ferenc Verseghy Library; the County Hall and City Hall, the building, which I often admire in passing, on the corner of Kossuth Square and Arany János Street; the buildings on Szapáry; the churches and synagogue; the train station; the old Szabadság bridge; the water tower, and much more. It was exciting to follow along; I understood at least 85 percent of the lecture and could figure out much of the rest. Besides learning about Szolnok, I was in awe of the occasion: a lecturer who knew and cared so much about this city, an inviting venue (the community center on Napsugár Street, right by the Alcsi-Holt-Tisza), and a rapt audience. This wasn’t just “worth” the bike ride to the outskirts of the city; the bike ride, lecture, audience, and surroundings were all part of the event.

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Afterwards, I bicycled in the wrong direction at first–but realized my error quickly and saw some lovely things along the way. Within minutes, I was back home. I have more to say, another time, about this event and about Zsolt Bajnai’s story “From the Pelikán to the Sugar Factory,” which I first read yesterday morning and which swiftly changed my life.

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“…használhatatlanná váltak…”

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After doing some last-minute errands before tomorrow’s trip across the seas, I decided to return to the exhibit–at the corner of Szapáry and Kossuth–of the history of some of Szolnok’s old buildings. I had attended the opening at 7 p.m. on June 22, the Night of the Museums, which coincided with the last day of the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. Zsolt Bajnai, who wrote the text and contributed some of the pictures, spoke about the exhibit and the buildings described in it; Marcell Bajnai opened and closed the event with a few of his songs.* I lingered a few minutes afterward to look at the pictures but knew I needed more time. Today I took a few minutes, not enough, but something.

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I began reading about the 1969 fire in the center of Szolnok. This sentence caught my attention: “A baleset utáni vizsgálat nyilvánvalová tette, hogy az üzletterek és a raktárak lényegében használhatatlanná váltak, azaz Szolnok akkori legnagyobb áruháza megsemmisült.” (The investigation after the accident made it clear that the business spaces and warehouses had essentially become unusable; that is, Szolnok’s largest department store at that time had been destroyed.)

Even within such a sad topic, how magnificent the word “használhatatlanná”! It consists of the root “haszon” (advantage, benefit, use) and four suffixes: the verb-forming suffix “ál,” the potential suffix -hat, the privative suffix -atlan, and the translative suffix -vá, which gets converted to “ná.” (I first learned about the translative case—my favorite of the cases—when  learning “Maradok ember,” which has the phrase “viharrá lettél.”) The phrase “használhatatlanná váltak” can be translated as “became unusable.” But how do you translate its length, its parts and whole, its metamorphosis, its six-time “a/á” vowel sound, the double occurrences of the consonant sounds h, l, t, and n, the last of which actually occurs triply, since it is doubled the second time? That word alone made the foray worthwhile, but it was just a fraction of what I saw and read there, between rush and rush, before leaving the country for five weeks.

*Regular readers of this blog have probably seen the Bajnai name come up often; yes, the Bajnai family contributes richly to cultural life in Szolnok and beyond, together and individually. I admire their work and look forward to knowing and understanding it better over time. I have begun translating Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves), which I saw for the second time on June 22, just a few hours before this opening.

In the Thick of the Festival

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Szolnok’s beloved Tiszavirág Fesztivál, commemorating the emergence of the mayflies from the Tisza river, is now in full swing, with music, food, drink, and general cheer. It is fun to spend time there with friends, as I did last night, or go to listen to music, as I will do this evening, or just head down there without specific plans. If you live in Szolnok, you will probably run into people you know. You will also hear various languages besides Hungarian: Russian, English, French, German, Croatian, and others.

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Yesterday evening, while hanging out with Tündi and Böbi and their friend Gábor, I got intrigued by the sound of Eskelina, a Swedish musician who now lives in France and writes and sings mainly in French.  I went up close a couple of times to listen. A little kid went even closer.

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Besides the music, what I enjoy about this festival (and the one in Esztergom too) is the ease of spending time in it, no matter what you are doing. People come there to be together. No one is in a rush, it seems. There are lots of places to sit, so you can just find a place and settle down for an hour or two, or else walk around and explore.

At the end of the evening I biked along the Tisza, then up the Zagyva, the one crowded with teenagers and reminiscent of “Álmok a parton“, the other almost desolate, except for a few bikers, river-gazers, and the sky. I now head down for more: an acoustic concert by 1LIFE (just an hour away!), maybe some walking around, more time with Tündi and Böbi, and a not-too-late return home, since I head to Budapest early in the morning.

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Update: The 1LIFE concert was fantastic. I have few words for it right now, but the songs are still in my mind. Afterward I sat for a little while with Tündi,  Böbi, and their colleagues. And then came home. A beautiful day.

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