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Basque Firsts by Vince J. Juaristi

57742b94ccaf0-imageBasques have had their impact on world history and there are key historical figures that most Basques already know. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, was born in Loyola. The first person to (deliberately) circumnavigate the Earth, Juan Sebastian Elcano, was from Getaria. However, there are many other Basques that have made important contributions to their profession and to the world. Vince Juaristi, in his book Basque Firsts: People Who Changed the World, delves into the lives of some of these people.

Juaristi has chosen a collection of Basques that have made seminal contributions to the world, the first to do something extraordinary in their field. He profiles seven such Basques:

Each of these profiles is rendered with a clarity and passion that is engrossing. Given the wide range of subject matter, one could fault Juaristi if some of his profiles were less coherent. However, Juaristi has a gift for conveying difficult subject matter in an easy style, a style that feels at ease with the subject matter, as if Juaristi has been studying the field for much of his life. Moving from religious to scientific to political topics, one always has the sense of familiarity with the subject. Juaristi portrays his subjects with confidence and skill.

While I had clearly known about some of the figures in this book, there were new faces for me too. For example, while the Mondragon cooperative has gained world-wide recognition for its business model and has become the subject of numerous studies, I hadn’t had the opportunity to learn about the man behind the vision. In some sense, this vision was guided by the notion that “Socializing knowledge truly democratizes power.” The man had vision that others initially failed to comprehend, such as the need to found a bank for the cooperative.santiago-ramon-y-cajal-bird-cerebellum

The profile of Ramon y Cajal most resonated with me, because of my own scientific background. He combined a scientific mind with the sensibilities of an artist, seeing the beauty in nature and trying to convey his scientific insight through illustration. He saw “Nature… with the heart of an artist.” After much struggle against his father’s own desires for him, Ramon y Cajal eventually enrolled as a pre-med student, where his artistic tendencies found a scientific outlet. In studying cadavers, he remarked “I saw in the dead body not death with its host of melancholy thoughts, but the marvelous workmanship of life.” He also saw his science as a mission on behalf of his native Spain, a way to bring glory to his nation. As his friend Sir Charles Sherrington remarked, “His science was first and foremost an offering to Spain.” As he aged, he took it as a new mission to educate the next generation: “The teacher must not spend his declining years in a sad solitude, but must approach his end surrounded by a through of young pupils.” In his last book, published after his death, he wrote “When facts are faced squarely, we must admit that it is not so much the thought of our own death that grieves us as the realization that by it we are snatched from the bosom of humanity and thus robbed forever of the hope of seeing the unfolding of the heroic struggle constantly being waged between the mind of man and the blind energy of natural forces.” This is a man that saw the poetry in nature and the beauty in science.la-neurociencia-estadounidense-rinde-homenaje-a-santiago-ramon-y-cajal_image_380

All of the profiles are equally inspirational and illuminating. Juaristi provides a strong case for the importance of Basques in world affairs by simply laying out the lives of these important figures. One can only wish that he follow up with a second volume of Basque Firsts.

This Strange and Powerful Language by Iban Zaldua

411IGMCc-ML._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Basque literature is a relative newcomer to the world literature scene and every Basque writer is faced with a number of critical decisions as he or she embarks on their journey. Iban Zaldua explores the history and modern context of Basque literature through these decisions in his book This Strange and Powerful Language. By examining the choices that Basque writers are faced with, Zaldua not only provides his own perspective on these questions, but essentially provides a guide of Basque literature through these decisions and how other authors have addressed them.

Being a relatively new addition to world literature, and being the literature of a minority culture, Basque literature and the authors behind it face interesting and, in some cases, unique questions that not only shaped the stories that have been produced but helps interpret the context in which Basque literature has developed. These questions include: Should a Basque writer write in Basque or potentially obtain a wider audience by writing in Spanish or French? How should a Basque writer deal with The Thing, as Zaldua refers to the Basque conflict? Will the author be a nationalist or non-nationalist? Will the author emphasize their indigenous exoticism, dwelling on the primitive and mystical aspects of Basque culture?

Zaldua, in an almost rambling way, addresses these and other questions and builds a history of Basque literature through the lens of these decisions other authors have made. It becomes a tour of Basque literature that highlights how stories in Basque have evolved. Zaldua has extensive footnotes that point to English translations of various Basque authors and, as such, the book becomes a tour of Basque literature for English speakers.

Zaldua highlights how Basque literature has evolved from a point where simply writing in Basque was an achievement — “There was a time when it was enough to write a grocery list in Basque” — to today, where there are books in Basque that are the equivalent of the trashy novel, not even claiming to some elevated status of literature. However, because of the relative youth of Basque literature, it has suffered from “Adam’s syndrome: namely, attributing added value to a work because, supposedly, it’s the first time that something like that — a police novel starring a retired detective, the chronicle of a journey by a scooter across two or three continents, a poem in which water lilies and high-fiber cereal are mentioned, and so on — has been written in Basque; the truth is that with a tradition like ours, what’s difficult is not being the first to do something.” This passage not only highlights one of the challenges of writing in Basque, but also Zaldua’s wit in conveying these challenges.

Regarding the point about the folk image of the Basque Country, Zaldua quotes Itxaro Borda: “it is obvious that ‘we could never live in a ‘well-mannered’ way on this planet, because we were always required to fit into one of the two fixed stereotypes: that of the shepherd-like nobel savage, or that of the expert terrorist of the highest order.'” Zaldua asks if, with the end of ETA’s terrorism, maybe the only trick Basques have left is that of the nobel savage? I imagine this is a common question of many minority cultures who have been pigeon-holed by the world-at-large into very specific cultural roles.

One thing I’ve come to realize during my time with this website is that, in the Basque Country, most things have a political side to them. Even the presumably simplest of questions, such as “what is the Basque Country,” stir up passions. Basque literature directly dives into this territory, addressing these types of questions head-on. Zaldua navigates that landscape, providing needed context that is often difficult for those not living in the Basque Country to appreciate. While Basque literature may not be as rich as the literatures of countries such as Spain, Britain, or Russia, it is much richer than is immediately obvious to a non-Euskara speaker and Zaldua makes this very clear. With his tangents and side excursions, Zaldua paints a picture of Basque literature that is both illuminating and piques interest in all of the literature that the Basque Country has developed. I’m certainly much more interested in delving into more of the stories he highlights in This Strange and Powerful Language.

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Basque News Roundup

Laminak-Pont-with-caption-800x576Alan King continues to share some great stories. He has two new Basque stories on his website. Kidnapped by the Basajaun tells the story of a shepherd frees a young woman who had been kidnapped by a basajaun and forced to live with him. The Dog with Charcoal Eyes is about a man, about to be wed, and a dog who wishes to visit a terrible revenge for a wrong done by the man.

_90047230_childrensdrawingsDuring the Spanish Civil War, as Franco’s forces approached the Basque capitals, the boat Habana took thousands of children to Britain, where they could escape the ravages of the war. Most eventually returned to the Basque Country, though hundreds stayed in Britain, their adopted home. The Yorkshire Post provides some context to the efforts of ordinary British citizens to help these children. BBC provides more details about the ordeal of these children and their experiences in Britain.

1869165Luis Ortiz Alfau was 19 years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Through he never fired a shot in the war, he served in the transmissions service, aiding in communications between different battalions. He witnessed the bombing of Gernika and was held in a forced labor camp by Franco’s forces. In this article in the Bangkok Post, Luis, one of the few remaining survivors of Gernika, tells his story.

martin_2One of the coolest aspects of Basque culture is the bertsolaritza, or improvisational poetry. Bertsolariak are given a theme and, on the spot, they have to compose a verse that follows a very specific rhythm. There are competitions for the best bertsolariak, with the best composing verses that bring laughs and gasps from the audience. As part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that was held in late June and early July, Smithsonian Magazine had an excellent introduction to the world of bertsolaritza. They also have a nice discussion with John Ysursa and Martin Goicoechea about the art form.

d3ed95d88143795f303dcbf8d118d4ce5ccc3f822cdb8e5dfa5ef1f1a02b2cf0Here is an interesting connection between Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Basque Country. Parts of season 7 of the Game of Thrones, the hit series based on George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novels, will film in the Basque Country, specifically in Zumaia and Bermeo. With landscapes like that, I can see why. This isn’t the first time the series has filmed in Spain nor, more specifically, the Basque Country. The connection to Santa Fe? Martin calls Santa Fe his home.

unspecified-1If you are a wine lover, but you are looking for something beyond the typical reds, whites, or even roses, a group in the Basque Country has created a blue wine. I’m not a wine connoisseur (I once shocked my future mother-in-law by pouring coke into the expensive glass of wine she had ordered me…), but it seems that this likely tastes similarly to other wines, but just has a different look. The inventors say they are looking for a little revolution and innovation for the wine market.

ham-largeDoes ham hold the secret to world peace? I doubt it, given that many societies avoid pork. However, the throng of people at the annual ham fair in Bayonne/Baiona (there is a ham fair? And no one ever told me?) were having such fun, it made writer Anthony Peregrine wonder if it would be worth bring world leaders together at such an event. As his wife told him, I don’t think so, but I do admit that jamon is about the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

sardines-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumAContinuing on the theme of food, José Pizarro has a new cookbook featuring Basque recipes. Though not Basque himself (Pizarro is from Extremadura) he has had a long-held interest in the food of the Basque region. His new book features recipes of pintxos accompanied with wonderful photos. The Telegraph and The Independent have several of these online.

1464253093_CavePaintings1The Basque Country is known for caves containing art from prehistoric times. Researchers have found another treasure trove of prehistoric art, this time in the Atxurra cave. The paintings depict numerous animals, several being hunted. They are in excellent condition and provide new insight into the lives of the prehistoric inhabitants of the region we now call the Basque Country.

_89972534_bilbaoschool3Finally, a note about education. If you count it separately from the rest of Spain, the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC) ranks third in Europe in per-pupil spending (after Denmark and Austria) and third in research and development (after Denmark and Finland) in Europe. They have made major pushes to develop themselves into an education center. This article from the BBC highlights some of the initiatives the BAC has made in education while this article from Pan European Networks summarizes the current education situation in the BAC.

The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

invisible guardianA while back, David Cox provided his thoughts on Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian. I’ve finally read it myself and here are my thoughts…

The Invisible Guardian follows Inspector Amaia Salazar, a young detective from the village of Elizondo in the Baztan Valley who is trying to establish herself in the Pamplona police force. However, when a murder occurs in her childhood village, she is forced to return, searching for a murderer and confronting her own demons from her past.

dolores-redondo-3This is a mystery novel, centered around murders in a rural Basque village. Amaia, in her efforts to solve the crimes, has to also interact with various people she had effectively left behind, people from her childhood that revive old memories, both happy and painful. Redondo peppers the novel with various elements that remind the reader that the story is taking place in the Basque Country, but it isn’t heavy handed. That is, she isn’t forcing Basque culture onto the the reader, she simply places the story in that setting.

The story is as much about Amaia and her struggles as it is about the murders and the effort to solve the crime. None of the characters are perfect; they are all flawed, just like all of us. Thus, Amaia and her team have to overcome not only the scant evidence available to them but also various personalities, both their own and others, that lead to difficulties.

escenarios-3One minor spoiler: there are some elements of the supernatural in the story. I’m not yet sure how I feel about them. I won’t say much more, and I’ll reserve judgement until I see how they play out in the next two novels that continue Amaia’s adventures in the Basque Country.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and, in particular, the characters. They are well developed and, to me, had real depth to them. The Basque setting adds a level of familiarity without being overly forced. And, the mystery itself is both plausible and suspenseful. This was a nice and quick read (I read it on an airplane to England) that kept me wanting to turn the page, always the sign of a good story.

Early Basque Workers

Vince J. Juaristi: Intertwined: A Basque-American Fairytale

As part of the buildup to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrating the Basque culture, Vince Juaristi is writing a series of articles highlighting the connections between the Basques and Americans. He has graciously allowed me to repost those articles as they appear on Buber’s Basque Page.

image1Sprawled between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian hosts the National Folklife Festival each year. Hundreds of thousands attend from across America and around the world to study and learn about diverse cultures in the United States. From June 29-July 4 and July 7-10, 2016, this year’s festival will showcase the Basque. In the lead up to this important event, we are publishing a series of historical and human interest articles that demonstrate how Americans and the Basque have crossed paths for centuries. An introductory article ran in January. Additional articles will run monthly through June 2016. We call the series, “Intertwined“.

A Basque-American Fairytale
By Vince J. Juaristi

During a bedtime story, a godchild of mine interrupted with a question, “Why are Basque people good?”

How fascinating, I thought. Mother Goose quickly went by the wayside.

“It has to do with a frustrated devil,” I told her. “One day, the devil climbed from the fire and smoke of hell to visit the Basque and turn them bad. With his red forked tongue, he whispered evil temptations in their ears. That’s how the devil works, you see, twisting hope and light into despair and darkness. But no matter how hard he tried, or how much he wagged his devilish tongue, he could not speak Euskera, the Basque language, so he had no power or influence over the Basque people. He finally gave up and returned to hell, and that, my dear godchild, is why the Basque are good to this day.”

The tale satisfied her, and I finished reading the three bears or the three pigs or some other less riveting fairytale for her proper education.

Her question had been a good one, even if it had no objective answer. Years later, I pondered it again, though I asked it differently, “Have the Basque thrived in America?”

The question really had two parts – first, the status of Basque in America, and second, their status compared to others in similar circumstances.

When I turned to the U.S. Census for something quantitative, I didn’t know what I might find. If the data showed the Basque lagging others in America, it would be as disappointing for me as it was for Pinocchio learning that he had descended from a piece of plywood and not the warmth of parents. Worse, it would be a far more difficult story to tell a godchild who already believed in Basque goodness.

But what I discovered confirmed a sentiment that was already tucked away in my heart of hearts.

Revellers hold up their red scarves next to a Basque Country flag during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona July 6, 2012. The annual festival, best known for its daily running of the bulls, kicked off on Friday with the traditional "Chupinazo" rocket launch and will run until July 14. (Susana Vera/Reuters photo)

Basque in Pamplona hold up the Basque flag and raise their red scarves as a sign of cohesion and solidarity, a strong sentiment that the Basque carried with them across the ocean to America where it only grew in strength.

More than 75% of Basque age 25 years or older have some level of college education compared to only 58% of Americans overall. The contrast is starker at higher educational levels where Basque are 50% more likely to hold a graduate or professional degree than other Americans.

This propensity for education makes them 10% more likely to be in the American labor force, and 31% more likely to hold jobs in management, business, science or the arts.

Their median household income is $70,159 compared to the U.S. median of $52,176. Their poverty rate is half the national average, and they are more likely to own their own home. When they do, the home is 48% more valuable than the average American home.

Had I not studied the data myself, I might have been skeptical of such a rosy picture. Indeed, skeptical I should have been. To compare a smaller homogenous group to a larger heterogeneous group risks statistical overreach. Yet to ignore the data would be equally egregious. What the data illuminate are the pointers, like Peter Pan’s northern star, showing areas where Basque excel, and confirming what I and others have witnessed anecdotally for generations.

These pointers – more education, higher wages, and better jobs – are good indicators of a thriving ethnic group. The analysis, consequently, begs a natural question – why have the Basque thrived when others have thrived less or not at all? Are the Basque, indeed, untainted by the devil’s poisonous whispers, or is there another plausible explanation?

Ideally, I’d like to point to a single quality or decision that explains Basque performance, but there isn’t one. Much like Little Red Riding Hood who studied eyes, nose, ears, and teeth to expose the wolf in grandma’s nightie, only a combination of cultural factors can explain the success of the Basque in America. There are no doubt many, but four resonate most – Basque cohesion, a strong work ethic, frugality, and an independent spirit.

First, the Basque are a cohesive group. They hail from a narrow part of the world, practice Catholicism, revere their own flag, and speak a language that is both ancient and nearly impossible for non-Basque to understand without years of concentrated study. Equally ancient are their special dances, color patterns, costumes, games of strength, and foods that reinforce a bond with each other, their past, and their origins in the Pyrenees.

Early Basque Workers

Basque sheepherders in the United States circa 1970 who toiled daily in the most austere conditions of the American West.

This cohesion does not guarantee Basque success, but it does create a social and economic ecosystem that helps the Basque spin straw into gold. Their bond generates trust, familiarity, cooperation, business associations, and even compeition among members of the group and with others outside the group. The Basque work with and for each other and often look inward for support. If one Basque needs something, another provides it.

The arrangement is common among other ethnic groups that have immigrated to the United States. What makes this tendency so powerful among the Basque is that they started as a cohesive group in Euskadi, their homeland. Amid the isolated peaks of the Pyrenees, they resisted the persistent influences of Spanish and French cultures, laws, and royalty. When they arrived as immigrants in the United States (or elsewhere), their bond only strengthened, which added to their highly productive social and economic relations.

This point recalls the fable of the father who summons his boys to his bedside. He gives them a bundle of sticks and says, “Break these if you can.” Each son strains and strains to do so but fails. Then the father unties the bundle and tells the boys to break each stick and they do so easily. “You see my meaning,” says the father, “there is strength in union.” The Basque know this lesson and stick together.

These shared qualities would advance them little, however, if not for a second characteristic – a driving work ethic.

Measuring work ethic is not easy. Without a record showing the clocked hours of Basque and non-Basque in a day, week, month or year; a productivity curve; or a calculation of watts, it is difficult to quantify or compare the work ethic of groups.

But still valuable evidence abounds. With a relatively small sampling of 57,000 Basque-Americans, anecdotes and personal accounts can offer weighty confirmation of group habits.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the ranchers of the west, for example, petitioned Nevada’s U.S. Senator Patrick McCarran to bring Basque shepherds from Spain for their herding expertise and their remarkable endurance to work from sunup to sundown with little rest and without complaint. At least 1,135 Basque sheepherders came to America and populated the West by this method.

My father and uncle were among them. I’d be negligent if I ignored their work ethic or my mom’s, or the work ethic of so many Basque men and women of their generation whom I watched and admired daily and counted as friends and neighbors for so much of my life. They herded the sheep, tended the bars, made the beds, cooked the meals, and mopped the floors, often seven days a week. A hundred Basque mothers and fathers come to mind still today who have calloused hands, sore backs, and a yearning to get ahead. Their stories cannot be ignored or denied.

As they worked, the Basque earned money, but they were not spendthrifts. On the contrary, their third quality was frugality. When I was a boy, my mother pointed a finger at me and repeated words her mother had taught her. “Spend half,” she said, “and put the other half away.” Her words echo in my head each time I collect a paycheck or balance a budget or launch a foundation, and they always will.

Mom’s advice appears common among the Basque. Annually, the average interest and dividends earned on savings by each American is $1,371. For the Basque, the average is $3,100, over 126% more.

“Oh, ant, why do you work so much?” asked Aesop’s grasshopper. “Come lounge with me.”

“That is not in my nature,” replied the ant. “Better to work and save for the winter.”

“Do what you must,” said the grasshopper.

The Basque are more ant than grasshopper. They work and save; it is simply in their nature.

Tied like a bow around this cultural cohesion, work ethic, and frugality is a fourth characteristic which John Adams, an American founding father, called a “High and independent spirit.” It might be the most important of all Basque qualities.

This spirit nests in the heart of every Basque and dates to ancient times. When the Romans invaded, the Basque resisted; when Isabel asked for allegiance, the Basque exacted a price; when a king imposed a tax, the Basque refused to pay and formed a militia; when Franco outlawed Euskera, the Basque defied the order. Despite these confrontations – and perhaps because of them – the Basque persevered, but not without pain or death. Their sacrifices only enriched their pride in language, culture, and an ancient heritage. Loss made what they had more precious.

They brought this independent spirit across the ocean where it blossomed in America’s free soil, a land that Goldilocks herself might have said was “just right.” The Basque shepherds who lived in the hills, fought coyotes and mountain lions, slept under stars, and ate by campfires each epitomized, in their own way, the self reliance that Emerson had spoken of a century earlier. They looked not to old Europe or government to shape their collective future, but to themselves and to each other.

Not surprisingly, this streak of independence makes the Basque 34% more likely than other Americans to earn their daily bread as self-employed entrepreneurs rather than salaried employees working for someone else. In my own family, mom and dad owned and operated two businesses, and two of their children are now CEOs of companies.

When my godchild, who is Danish and raised on a healthy diet of Hans Christian Andersen, asks again about the Basque, I can surely repeat the story of the frustrated devil, but I’ll have another story for her that reads very much like a fairytale. Numbers have confirmed what my heart and experience already knew. I’ll tell her of a people who came with nothing, worked until fingers bled, saved and stuck together, and stood independent and strong on two firmly committed legs. It’s a good story and almost complete except for one ingredient – the ending.

It’s too soon to say that all lived happily ever after. The Basque are still in the throes of the tale, still seeking their fortunes, and occasionally, still fighting big bad wolves. Yet all signs so far point to these Basque-American ducklings slowly emerging as swans.

martin and dad

In Memory: Martin Uberuaga Zabala

martin and accordionI first met my uncle Martin, my dad’s brother, during my first trip to Euskadi, back in 1991. At the time, he and his wife, Rosario, ran the Herriko Taberna in my dad’s home town, Munitibar. Rosario got up early in the morning, around 5am or so, to clean the restaurant and bar and begin the daily cooking. Martin would get up later, but he was the one who closed the bar, often up until 2am or later. All of this while raising a special needs child. I was amazed at their work ethic. I spent many hours just sitting in the bar as patrons came and went, absorbing what I could as Martin poured drink after drink and sold treats to the kids that could barely reach the bar to give their pesetas to him.

Martin was also in charge of doing much of the shopping and would often make runs to Gernika to buy supplies. I joined him a few times and every where he went, people knew him. He would take me on the rounds of the bars after we got done shopping, saying hello to what seemed to be half of the town.

Martin had been the scholarly one of the family. He had trained to be a priest in Onati but, right before being ordained as a priest, he decided it wasn’t for him. My dad told a story about when they were young and their mom was trying to provide them with more opportunities for education. Some nuns came to the basseria to take the kids to school, and while they could entice Martin to go with them (my dad said all it took was a few sweets) my dad instead hid until they left.

The one thing that stands out in my mind about Martin is his generosity. The last time I saw him was when my wife and daughter joined me in Spain. Martin took us to several local beaches where my daughter absolutely loved searching for seashells to take back home to her grandma and amuma. When we were done and getting ready to head back to his sister’s place, Martin insisted we stop in Gernika for one quick paseo. At every stop, he got us something to eat, even though we were about to have one of those massive Basque dinners in just a few hours. He ordered immense plates of jamon, which I gorged myself on, just because.

martin and dadMartin was also a stubborn man, a seemingly common trait of the Uberuagas. My brothers and I would argue all the time when we were kids, and my dad was always telling us to stop it. Being the only one in his family in the United States, I’d never seen him interact with his siblings. However, when Martin came to visit us, we saw the sparks fly. They would argue about everything! They even argued about what side of the car the steering wheel was in the postal worker trucks. Martin insisted that there was simply no way they could be on the right side of the car, even though my dad told him he had seen them. They argued endlessly about things like this, much like me and my brothers.

Maybe the most telling story about Martin comes from my second visit to Euskadi. I was staying with him and his family that time, and they let me borrow their little old car to drive around the country. On the very last day of my stay, his son, Ander, and I went to visit some family and, on the way I got too close to a retaining wall and damn near ripped the passenger door off the car. We got back to Munitibar and told Martin what had happened. I expected the fury of hell. However, he essentially dismissed it, shoved me into my aunt’s car, who was taking me to the airport, and saw me on my way. I can’t imagine that dealing with that car was a trivial matter, but he made it clear that I shouldn’t worry. Rosario always told me that it finally gave her an excuse to upgrade that car.

martn and roseMartin always seemed content with his life, but at the same time, always tried to expand his horizons. After he retired from the bar, he started learning how to play the accordion and he started playing the piano again after many years of neglect. He was always trying new things, except that time we took him to a Japanese restaurant in Reno and he simply couldn’t understand how anyone could eat dinner without bread.

Martin, my dad’s second oldest brother (my dad was the oldest), passed away last week. The Basque Country won’t be quite so inviting as it always had been before. For me, it will be just a little less full of life, a little less like home.

Goian bego, Martin.

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