Portland to Montevideo

4 April 2013

Thursday


Chicago as I saw it from the air. I've been through the Chicago airport at night many times, but this is the first time I recall seeing it during the day.

Chicago as I saw it from the air. I’ve been through the Chicago airport at night many times, but this is the first time I recall seeing it during the day.

It has been said — perhaps it has been said too often, as it has now become a cliché — that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the same spirit it might be said that a journey of a thousand miles continues with the iteration of that initial step: repeat as necessary. The destination is one’s extremal clause that terminates the travel algorithm. Any part of a journey of a thousand miles, then, consists of some subset of steps taken — and here we can even accommodate the empty set (since pauses between steps are also part of the journey) as well as the set of all steps (which is the journey entire). In some contexts nothingness and the whole are improper parts and need to be avoided, but they cause no problem for a formalization of this poetic characterization of travel.

Flying over Montevideo on approach.

Flying over Montevideo on approach.

I might decompose my journey from Portland to Uruguay into any number of parts, or stages of the journey — in fact, I could say rather that my journey was from Oregon to Uruguay, or Oregon to Montevideo, or Portland to Montevideo, and so on — so there are even different ways of construing the parts, and which parts go to make up the whole. My flights alone were divided into three legs, from Portland to Chicago, Chicago to Miami, and Miami to Montevideo. Then of course there was the necessary leg from my house in Portland to the Portland airport, a trip made possible by one of my sisters, who drove me to the airport.

Picking up the rental car at the Montevideo airport.

Picking up the rental car at the Montevideo airport.

On the other end of my flights, having arrived in Uruguay, I also had connections to make with another sister. She had earlier flown into Buenos Aires and had taken a ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia de Sacramento on the Uruguayan coast. Once I arrived at the Montevideo airport, I picked up a rental car and headed out on unfamiliar roads, trying to make out unfamiliar signs and using a less-than-optimal map, but I made it to the ferry landing at Colonia with little difficulty.

Driving along the oceanfront highway that wraps around Montevideo.

Driving along the oceanfront highway that wraps around Montevideo.

When I picked up the rental car the car rental representative told me that the best way to proceed was the drive from the airport to the oceanfront road that wraps around the whole of Montevideo, and then leads on to Ruta 1. This I did, and it gives the traveler a good initial impression of Montevideo to take this long oceanfront drive, with the city on the one side and the Atlantic on the other. My initial impression of Montevideo is that it is comfortable, laid-back, and tropical — it has none of the obvious poverty that one seems so frequently in Andean South America, and the city and the roads have nothing of the “frantic” feeling that one encounters in many third world metropolises.

Once I made it through Montevideo I could get on Ruta 1, which took me to Colonia.

Once I made it through Montevideo I could get on Ruta 1, which took me to Colonia.

I noticed, by the way, a lot of HBSC advertisements in the Montevideo airport, and there was an HBSC bank branch right in the airport terminal itself. Not long ago in Rationing Financial Services I wrote:

“If you have a hundred grand sitting around, you can park it at HBSC and get yourself a bank account that you can access at any branch in the world, taking withdrawals or making deposits in the local currency (or any other currency, for that matter). But I don’t have a hundred large to spare.”

And how right I was. If I could afford to have an HBSC account, I could have walked right into the HBSC branch and taken out my own money then and there, without having recourse to currency exchange for the greenbacks I brought along with me. But Uruguay is not an especially large or rich country, so I had to wonder about the HBSC branch at the airport.

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Evening sky at the Estancia Tierra Santa.

Evening sky at the Estancia Tierra Santa.

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Wednesday


southern cone

Almost three years ago I wrote about A Journey to the Southern Cone, when I visited Argentina in May 2010. Now I find myself in the Portland airport once again, with a boarding pass in hand, bound for the southern cone — this time headed to Uruguay.

uruguay flag

While I have written about Uruguay on several occasions — for example, in The Election in Uruguay, Latin American Leftist Juggernaut, and Incommensurable Defaults, inter alia — I have not previously visited this “little” country with the romantic name of Oriental Republic of Uruguay and the dramatic national slogan of “Libertad o Muerte.

uruguay

It would be entirely reasonable for a people to take umbrage at having their country called “little” with all the diminutive connotations that come with this appellation, and given my experiences of that other “little” country in South America — Ecuador, which has greatly impressed me, and is one of my favorite places to visit — I am keenly looking forward to exploring this other “little” country to discover whatever neglected treasures it no doubt holds for the traveler.

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Thursday


Edo Tokyo 1

Tokyo is a city famous for recycling itself, but the kind of urban sustainability that comes from urban recycling isn’t what usually comes to mind when one thinks of sustainability, and is more akin to what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” — the wholesale tearing down of the old to make way for the new. This is, of course, a perennial feature of industrial civilization, but the level of this creative destructive activity in Tokyo has outstripped its operation elsewhere; Tokyo is the purest species of the genus “industrial city.”

Edo Tokyo 2

While most of the structures demolished in the “destructive” phase of creative destruction are lost, there is a small preserve of formerly endangered buildings, the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum. Many of the “historical” structures at the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum were not all that “old” — not even as old as the house in which I grew up and where I spent my childhood. But such is the character of a city (and its historical museum) that continually re-invents itself by tearing down the old and building the new in its place that the “old” is not always all that old.

Edo Tokyo 4

Many of the more recent buildings at the museum (mostly houses rather than commercial structures) felt downright modern and contemporary and not really in any sense “old.” I was, in fact, reminded of the Gordon House — the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in Oregon, and another contemporary structure that has been turned into a museum. It has been noted that Wright was profoundly influenced by Japanese aesthetics, and there is a surprisingly detailed documentary about the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and his time spent in Japan, Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan. This film is well worth watching, and goes well beyond Wright’s work to discusses the extensive influence that Wright had in training an entire generation of Japan’s modern architects.

Edo Tokyo 3

It would be too facile to say that Wright was influenced by Japan or the Japanese architects were influenced by Wright; there was something more fundamental at stake. There was an essential relationship, a deep consonance, between Japanese aesthetics and Wright’s personal aesthetic vision, and, as it happens, the two were uniquely suited to each other. Wright’s personal aesthetic vision of architecture within nature, drawn from nature and harmonious with nature, happened to coincide with age-old Japanese aesthetic traditions that have valued nature differently from Western axiology (although this is changing in our own time). If an individual mind chances to resemble, in its constitution, an ancient tradition of which that individual mind is not, however, a part… or if an ancient tradition chances to find its most contemporary expression in the works of an individual whom it did not shape… it should be no wonder that the individual and the tradition will eventually find each other. Modern transportation technology has made it possible for us to find and to experience traditions of which we did not even know ourselves to be a part until we happen upon them. And this is one of the great experiences of travel.

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Wednesday


The Swedish knight Antonius Block returns from crusading in the Holy Land to play a game of chess with death and to find the plague ravaging his homeland.

In the classic Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, a Swedish knight, Antonius Block, returns to his native Sweden after ten years of crusading in the Holy Land. Upon his return he encounters the figure of Death, which whom he engages in a chess match, and as the game of death proceeds, the knight and his squire, which latter has become so disillusioned as to be cynical, see the ravages of the Black Death, see a witch burned, and see flagellants whipping themselves in a frenzy of religiously-inspired self-mortification (curiously parallel to the religiously-inspired violence in which the crusading knight himself as participated). The knight has returned from a traumatic experience to find not respite but further trauma. All in all, this is not the sort of homecoming for which one would wish.

Medieval flagellants engaged in violent self-mortification.

The knight has been on crusade, but what is a crusade but an armed pilgrimage? At the same time that knights were traveling on crusade, others were traveling the same roads as unarmed pilgrims. The knight going to the Holy Land to do battle with the infidel is as much a pilgrim as the friar with this staff is a pilgrim. It was commonplace in the middle ages for religious officials to offer absolution of sins to knight for fulfilling their religious duty to go on crusade to liberate the Holy Land.

Pilgrimage was sometimes undertaken voluntarily, as a religious duty, and in other cases under duress, as penance.

The experience of return after many years of absence, whether due to crusade or pilgrimage, would have commonly been as unsettling as Bergman’s knight coming home to the plague and a chess match with Death — though not likely as dramatic. In that other famous case of a return after ten years’ absence, The Odyssey, Odysseus on his return to Ithaca must deal with the unruly Suitors of Penelope — but after dispatching them all, he is eventually accepted by his wife and then by his father. In other words, Odysseus experiences a kind of closure and resolution; the only closure for Bergman’s knight is that of death.

Odysseus also had a difficult homecoming, but eventually he got his life back. In other words, you can go home again.

Can we go home again? Is it even possible to go home again, to the same home, as one’s selfsame self, after having walked abroad in life (as the ghost of Jacob Marley puts it)? Or is it impossible to step twice into the same river because new waters are always flowing upon us? Kierkegaard devoted an entire book to this question, Repetition. Kierkegaard frames the question like this: is a repetition possible? Homer says yes. Bergman says no.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, 05 May 1813 – 11 November 1855, asked if a repetition is possible. In other words, do we get a second chance?

Kierkegaard had a personal stake in the question, since he had tossed over Regine Olsen after having proposed to her, and after her acceptance. He ran. In other words, Kierkegaard was a cad, and it bothered his conscience. He wanted to know if he could make up for it. In a way, he did, though he probably didn’t know it. A friend of mine who studied Kierkegaard much more intensively than I ever did, told me that in her later married life to another man, Regine Olsen and her husband spent their spare time reading Kierkegaard’s devotional treatises to each other. Strange, no? But life is full of strange occurrences.

Regine Olsen, once engaged to Kierkegaard.

Is a repetition possible? Do we get a second chance? Can we go home again? The questions are inter-related, but they are not the same. Rather, they are same for some, but not for all. And I think we can formulate it like this: those for whom defamiliarization is the more traumatic have a second chance upon return; those for whom refamiliarization is the more traumatic do not regard homecoming as a second chance, but look forward to their next departure as their second chance. In either case, a repetition is possible, but in no sense guaranteed. So I must side with Homer as against Bergman, but I must also observe that the difference in an individual’s response to defamiliarization and refamiliarization marks the ground of a distinction: if you are not on one side, you are on the other.

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Tuesday


The Russian formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky introduced the term “defamliarization” to indicate that function of literature and art which is to make the familiar strange in order to see that which is most common in a new light. It is not only art that serves this function. Science often serves in the capacity of defamiliarization and forces us to see familiar aspects of the world in new ways. Travel may be considered a personal form of defamiliarization. I touched on this earlier in Being the Other when I wrote:

“…the ignorant traveler bumbles through the business of ordinary life in a foreign country, though the business of ordinary life feels quite extraordinary. The extraordinariness of the everyday is another familiar feature of travel, and this can be expressed in ways that are both illuminating and embarrassing.”

If travel is a form of defamiliarization, then returning from travel constitutes a kind of refamiliarization. I often thought of this when returning from my earlier travels, when I would be away for a month at a time, as it always felt difficult to resume the mundane details of mundane life; even after the most spartan and ascetic travel — and if I described my early travel to you, I think you would agree that it was pretty spartan — one does not easily fit back into one’s life at home. Thus travel is not only a defamiliarization of the world, it is also a defamiliarization of oneself.

If that weren’t enough, travel also involves a process of defamiliarization with one’s own expectations for travel. A bus stop is not an auspicious place to be dropped off in a new and unfamiliar country, but it is likely that the traveler will find himself or herself unceremoniously dropped off at a bus stop or staggering out of train station and wondering what comes next. The important thing here is that this is precisely what is new: one doesn’t know what comes next.

The expectations that a new traveler has for a distant land — derived from a lifetime of travel posters, glossy brochures, full color magazine spreads, films of the exotic unknown, and travel memoirs both witty and insightful — are likely to be disappointed by the same infrastructure of industrialized civilization that makes international travel quick, convenient, affordable, and accessible. The disruption to one’s schedule by travel is reduced to a day of sitting on an airplane and being shuttled between various lines and waiting rooms and officials examining papers.

Upon arrival at one’s destination, one travels through the outlying industrial development that inevitably surround airports, and after this one is treated to a view of the extensive suburbs that have swelled all the cities of the industrial age. It may not be until the next day, when one emerges from one’s hotel after a night recovering from the previous day’s travel, that one comes to the historic center of an ancient city and finally begins to see the objects of touristic pilgrimage, which by now seem rather small and insignificant when surrounded by a metropolis that has but little relationship to one’s tourist intentions. The only place that I can recall that was immediately striking upon stepping out of the train station was Venice, and that was in 1989 — by now its character may well have changed.

The refamiliarization of returning home involves this same process in reverse order: one detaches and disentangles oneself from the landscape and the people and the way of life to which one has quickly become accustomed, and indeed even fond of — itself a painful process, as it often feels like a betrayal of oneself to leave that which one has sought and finally found, so that departure feels like exile rather than being the opposite of exile — and one passes by degrees back into the infrastructure of industrialized civilization, back from the countryside, into the center of a capital city, then through its suburbs and its outlying industrial districts until one at last arrives at the forlorn landscape of an airport, with its steel and glass buildings and its asphalt tarmac… the very picture of bleakness and desolation, if ever there was an uninviting spectacle welcome one on one’s journey “home” (which we must now put in scare quotes because the prospect of return no longer feels like home).

The airport, a waystation for touristic pilgrims, has all the anonymity and neutrality one would expect from a transient space not intended as a place for any kind of familiarity at all, but rather a place to make the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar, or from the unfamiliar back to the familiar.

If the airport were not already enough of a shock, then there is the abrupt re-insertion into the matrix of ordinary life and work, the telephone ringing, errands to run, obligations to meet, and a life to be lived that no longer feels like one’s own.

Which is the more profoundly jarring and disturbing experience — defamiliarization or refamiliarization?

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Monday


Frogner Park, one of my favorite places in Oslo.

In an earlier post from 2009 I called Oslo The Quiet City. Since that time, I had to retract that in the wake of the Breivik massacre and acknowledge that Oslo was no longer the quiet city. Just last week was the one year anniversary of the massacre, and there were of course many news stories and memorials. There are buildings in downtown Oslo surrounded by scaffolding, presumably to repair damage from the massive bomb blast that accompanied the massacre.

The weather was beautiful, so my sister and I ate an an open air restaurant in Frogner Park; here you can see my thirty dollar hamburger and my sister’s thirty dollar bowl of mussel soup.

I returned to one of my favorite places in Oslo, Frogner Park, with its sculptural program of all the diversity of the human condition executed by Guxtav Vigeland. Vigeland could have said, as Walt Whitman said, I am large, I contain multitudes. And multitudes had turned out on this sunny day. While the pleasant weather brought out significant numbers to Frogner Park, it remained a relatively quiet place, and the crowds rarely compromised the peace and tranquility of the park. Here I could once again think of Oslo as the quiet city.

Many people were enjoying the sunshine at Frogner Park.

Seen from close up, Vigeland’s central monument at Frogner Park reveals the human struggle in all its petty intimacy, with one person climbing over another in striving to reach the top. Because of our inalienable position within the human condition, this is what it always looks like to us — very personal and visceral. We do not have the luxury of standing back and viewing it all from a distance because we are part of it. The companion monument, located nearby but less visited, called The Circle of Life, has a rather different character. Here the figures are intertwined as in the central monolith, but gracefully, and there is no striving for the top, only the equilibrium state of a closed and finite but unbounded loop.

Vigeland’s central monument at Frogner Park: seen from a distance, the human struggle that it represents has none of the petty character that we know so well from personal experience, and which Vigeland represented so well in his sculpture.

The local guide at the Urnes stave church, in discussing the wooden carvings on the exterior of the church, took pains to point out that the largest figures in that delicate interweaving of figures are mammals — not reptiles or dragons, as one might assume from the Viking fondness for representing ferocity through dragon’s heads. He also pointed out that the figures in the carving, while all struggling with each other, are all alive. None has yet triumphed, and none has yet died. The same could be said of Vigeland’s monolith, and the softened representation of the struggle of life as it appears in The Circle of Life. The carvings at Urnes lie somewhere in between the naked struggle of Vigeland’s monolith and the graceful torus of The Circle of Life — a medieval evocation of the struggle and interdependence of life.

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Sunday


My limited time in Norway has caught up with me and now I have to leave my aunt’s house in Sand and drive across the country in order to be in Oslo in time to catch my flight out. Because of Norway’s difficult terrain, overland travel is time consuming even in an age of cars and highways. While it is possible to come to Sand without taking a car overland — one can fly into Stavanger and take the fast boat, for example, which takes two or three hours — but if you want to see sights in rural Norway (like stave churches, for example) you need to have a car. At least, it helps to have a car.

Vøringfossen, one of the most impressive waterfalls in Norway.

On the drive from Sand to Geilo I stopped at the waterfall at Vøringfossen, which is right next to the road and therefore an easy stop. In a land of many waterfalls, Vøringfossen is among the most impressive, falling down a sheer cliff in a view that cannot be captured by any camera. I tried many different ways of taking a picture that might give some sense of the falls, but I was not successful.

Some perspective on Vøringfossen to put the previous picture in a human context.

Leaving the west coast of Norway and driving inland, the weather rapidly improved, and the overcast and steady rain of the coast gave way to fewer clouds and more sun.

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Saturday


The present church at Jelsa was built around an earlier stave church.

Not far from Sand i Ryfylke, and also in Suldal, is the small town of Jelsa. Despite the fact that I have visited Sand many times, I have never before been to Jelsa, so my aunt and my sister and I piled into our rental car and drove over to the next town. It was a nice day for a drive in Suldal.

The interior of the early modern church at Jelsa.

Jelsa has a remarkable early modern church, which is a wonderful example of wooden vernacular ecclesiastical architecture. In an earlier post, Vernacular Culture in Hardanger, I mentioned how the Church Law of 1851 was used as a pretext to tear down many stave churches as being too small. There once was a stave church at Jelsa, but it did not fall victim to the Church Law of 1851. Apparently economic and demographic growth came earlier to Jelsa, and a newer (and larger) wooden church was built around the old stave church in 1647 — about the same time that Hålandstunet was being painted. These events suggest a level of relative prosperity in 17th century Suldal.

The remarkable ceiling of church at Jelsa is painted like the night sky — except that it includes the sun as well as the moon.

I particularly liked the ceiling of the Jelsa church, which is painted as a night sky, except that both the sun and the moon appear together on the ceiling — something one would never see under ordinary conditions of observational astronomy. Of course, one sees the sun and the moon together in the sky on a regular basis, but when we see this the sky is bright from the light of the sun, and not he dark blue of the night sky bespeckled with stars. One can suppose that this was mere astronomical eclecticism, perhaps the result of painterly enthusiasm and poetic license, or one can try to read a message into this paradoxical painting (e.g., Is this a veiled reference to Olber’s paradox?). Paradoxical painting is a favorite topic of theoretical exegesis (think of Foucault writing about Goya’s Las Meninas), but on this particular day I find myself quite without any theory to explain the ceiling (certainly an exception to the rule — I am rarely without a theory), so you must come up with your own and take responsibility for the interpretation.

It was a nice day for a drive around Suldal.

But now that I am thinking about both Jesla and Hålandstunet and the relative prosperity they represent, I am tempted to do some further research, as this sort of early modern efflorescence deserves an explanation, so I think that there is a potential theory here, though it may turn out to be as simple as the fact that a wandering painter was available in the area at that time, and was willing to paint for room and board. The local guide from the Ryfylke Museum, who was present at both Jesla and Hålandstunet (open on successive days, like a museum circuit), mentioned the name of the painter who did the interior of the Jelsa church. I didn’t think to ask if there was any relationship between these two examples of mid-seventeenth century painting in Suldal. It would be worth looking into.

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Friday


A room with a view at Hålandstunet, Suldal.

In Vernacular Culture in Hardanger I mentioned that many local folk museums throughout Norway maintain traditional buildings in situ, and today I visited one of these. Hålandstunet is an assemblage of three buildings in Suldal probably less than a half hour’s drive from Sand. Until the farm was purchased by the museum, it had been in the same family since 1570. The oldest of the buildings dates from the 17th century, with traditional Norwegian rose painting — rosemåling — dating to about 1650. The later manor house dates from 1836, and looks quite spacious and comfortable for the time.

Sitting on a bench in the Hålandstunet manor house.

I have long regarded in situ works of art to be the “holy grail” of aesthetic tourism, and my own aesthetic pilgrimages have often been organized around seeing particular works of art that still remain in their original context, like the late medieval St. Wolfgang altarpiece by Michael Pacher. Seeking out in situ works of art often means going to considerable trouble to find the truly great examples, and then to make one’s way to their sometimes obscure homes. It is, at least, significantly less convenient than touring through an art museum in middle of an easily accessed major city, where such art treasures are usually collected. Yet I find that the effort is repaid with interest, as the journey to an isolated work of art usually reveals something about the circumstances and the history of that work. In other words, it is worth the trouble.

Traditional rose painting at Hålandstunet from about 1650.

At Hålandstunet we have the vernacular culture equivalent of high culture art in situ — the whole of Hålandstunet, with its carved and painted implements of the ordinary business of life in pre-industrialized Norway, is a tribute to the usually nameless folk artists who decorated their lives with whatever was ready to hand. This is folk art in situ. It would not be right to call this a utilitarian art; it is, in a sense, the antithesis of “pop art.” Precisely because the implements of the ordinary business of life were not mass produced, they were of considerable value and often followed a person through life — and probably they followed a family through generations. Heirlooms are not always or only jewels; a sturdy copper kettle may have been an heirloom.

While the house was being restored, a 16th century Bible was found in the walls of the house; this is not on display here, though, but is kept elsewhere.

The countryside of Scandinavia is rich in such vernacular architecture. Many of these structures have been incorporated into open air museums, such as that I saw at Utne in Hardanger, but quite a few are still to be found dotting the countryside. Sometimes when you drive around the back roads of Norway you come upon an ancient structure by chance, and it is obviously been sitting for hundreds of years upon the same spot. A few of these unmoved, unchanged treasures have been carefully curated by museums and are open to the public. Hålandstunet is among these.

When a copper kettle is expensive and difficult to obtain, it becomes an heirloom and stays within a family.

As much as I enjoy open air museums, as with the treasures of high culture art found in (relatively) remote backwaters, I find that it is worth the trip to find those surviving instances of vernacular art still in situ. When you travel to Hålandstunet you must travel more or less the same path taken since 1570 when the first residents arrived, and when you look out the windows you see the same view that the original residents saw. That is worth something. There is much to be learned from the lives of the original inhabitants that are exhibited in the artifacts they left behind. The less disturbed these traces, the more there is to learn. This is not “original intent” but what might be called original disposition.

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Thursday


I have long wanted to go swimming in the fjord at Sand. In previous visits I have even packed a wetsuit with me so that if the opportunity arose, I could go. Well, I didn’t use my wetsuit before, but today I wish I had brought it with me this time. While yesterday was a nice day, today was an absolutely gorgeous day, with blue skies from horizon to horizon and the sun warming the rain-soaked Norwegian ground. It would be accurate to say that it felt hot in Sand today, and there aren’t many hot days in Norway.

Although I didn’t go swimming, I did at least take my shoes off and walked in the surf at the little “beach” in Sand. I wasn’t the only one there. The sun brought people out, and there were a few young children swimming in the waters of the fjord — apparently oblivious to the glacial runoff that feeds the fjords and keeps them cold under most circumstances. I say “under most circumstances” since my sister tells me that when she spent a summer here ten years ago there were several weeks of hot weather and she went swimming in the fjord. Needless to say, I am jealous.

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Thursday is Komledag! I’ll be down at the Fargariet cafe in Sand to get my share of Komle.

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