The Fringe is On: First Glimpse of Festival Culture in Edinburgh

There’s this buzz around Edinburgh, suggesting that something great is about to happen. Tuesday morning, I awoke to singing, a rehearsal for “Tattoo.” It was as if the collective voices, distinct harmonies were welcoming the suite guests into a new day. It was a special before-breakfast treat. It prepared me for a day of exploring.

After breakfast, the UMD students went down to Venue 13 where we will be working. On the way, I snapped a few photos of the flyers and signage for shows that guide pedestrians down the path. “Come See,” they beckon. Who was I to resist?

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When we arrived at Venue 13, Dez and his team of students from the Royal Welsh College were loading-in. The space only holds a little more than forty ticket holders, which will, perhaps, provide a more intimate setting for performers and audiences.  Dez explained that the performances will run back-to back, offering a lot of art in just a few days. He deemed it the “Fringe at its best.”

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Following our meeting with Dez, we ventured down the Royal Mile. Some performers were getting a head start with their in-person advertising and showing off their acts.

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During a quick coffee break at Caffé Nero, we met two festival–goers from Austria, Tari and Stefanie. Stefanie recently graduated from business school and is taking some needed travel time before settling into a career. Both women will be working at the festival this year and will get to see many of the shows for free. Not a bad deal.

Tari and Stefanie

Tari and Stefanie

Before heading back to the suite, I did a little exploring of my own, searching for other interesting performances to catch over the next few days. So many from which to choose…

(While I was drafting my post, the bartender at the restaurant on the University of Edinburg Campus began to sing the lyrics to Jay-z’s and Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind.” So my day ends as it began…with music.)

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A Magical Tour

I love reading for the same reason that I love traveling: I love seeing life through a perspective that isn’t my own. When traveling I like to see the different quirks that exist in all the new towns and cities that are different from the ones I’m used to. Seeing if people diligently wait at lights for them to turn green or if, like in Edinburgh, they press the buttons that they want to cross and then completely ignore the lights to j-walk across streets when there is a good enough gap between cars. Reading gives you a chance to uniquely see perspectives through the eyes of another person, even if they are a fictional character. My experiences in Edinburgh so far have been able to combine both my love of traveling and my love of reading.

The first event that I’ve had the privilege of attending of the Fringe Festival was The Potter Trail, a walking tour of the city to show all of the Harry Potter related sights in the city, places where J.K. Rowling wrote the books as well as various things and places that inspired aspects of the books. In my independent travels that I did before the program started I had seen a couple of the sights already. I had seen The Elephant House, a cafe that describes itself as “The Birthplace of Harry Potter” and knew that there were a couple of gravestones that Ms. Rowling got names from in Greyfriars Kirk’s graveyard – I hadn’t found the names, but I knew they were there somewhere.

The tour not only connected the fictional world of Harry Potter to inspirations from the real world of Edinburgh, but gave some history of the city of Edinburgh. For example, J.K. Rowling got Professor McGonagall’s name from the Poet, William McGonagall’s gravestone. This poet was given the unofficial title of “worst poet ever” and was generally not very well liked. At one point during his life he allowed people to pay to see him recite poetry and throw rotten fruit and such at him and his face. When one of the first health and safety laws was put into place outlawing this practice, William McGonagall wrote an angry poem stating that the law was taking away his livelihood.

I have greatly enjoyed experiencing this wonderful city through the perspective of one of my favorite fictional worlds and can’t wait to see other aspects of the city through other Fringe Festival events and by exploring more independently.

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A Whole New (Old) World

Street in Edinburgh

Taken on the walk to Venue 13 to check out the space and tech move-in

Today was our first full day in Edinburgh, and it was just as bright and sunny as yesterday. Bright, sunny, and completely new to me–this is my first trip outside of North America. Going through customs (and traveling through Heathrow in general) was certainly an experience, as well as remembering to make sure to look BOTH ways before crossing because they do indeed drive on the left. So far I’m really enjoying all of the stone buildings–it makes every view more dramatic. Hearing all of the different accents and languages adds a flair to every interaction as well.

After walking with the group to Venue 13 today to learn the route and meet some of the people from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama setting up the venue, and then stopping for coffee (and Wi-Fi), Andrea, Melissa, and I explored around town. We got tickets from the Fringe Box Office–we managed to narrow it down to 5 shows out of an expansive list–and then explored all the way up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. Then we walked back down, made a couple stops, and headed back to Greyfriars Bobby’s (where we had dinner last night) to meet up at the statue of the well-known little dog for a tour for Harry Potter fans.*

Pizza Paradise Menu Offerings

Pizza Paradise Menu Offerings

One of my favorite parts of the day was the place we stopped for dinner on the way there–and not just because there was food involved. It is called Pizza Paradise, and as you can see in the picture, a sign outside advertises that they serve falafel, humus, shawerma, kebabs, pizza and burgers, all in the same joint. I’ve never seen this particular combination of food served at one place in the US, but I do see it with amusing frequency here! And I don’t know about all of the other falafel-humus-shawerma-kebabs-pizza-burger joints of the world, but this one had really good food (Melissa and I shared chicken and corn pizza, for curious souls).

Finally, an ongoing side project of mine on this trip includes asking people I meet a Question of the Day and videoing their responses. I’ll put these responses together in a video for the kids at the DC Public Library branch** where I work, as a fun way to teach geography and share some global perspectives. In this quest so far, I’ve met 3 people–two friends from Vienna who had traveled to the Fringe to work (and get into shows for free), and an author from London who was on the Royal Mile promoting her book of short stories. They were very nice, friendly people, and I’m excited to keep working on the project–and to keep my progress documented/summarized here!

 

*If you don’t know about the sweet little terrier, here’s the Wikipedia article, as well as the Historic UK description.

**Totally my own project, not official in any capacity.

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First Day of a New Adventure

Aside

So far “Following the Fringe” has been a great adventure.  Scotland is beautiful.  Every vista is breath-taking especially the one out of my window that looks at Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano that is just beautiful. However, what makes travel so fascinating for me is meeting new people.  I love how many languages I hear while just walking down the street in Edinburgh.  Today turned out to be a boon day for me because I was surrounded by new sights, new sounds and very interesting new people. I awoke to the sound of various conversations that passed my window on the way to breakfast.  I understood very few of them, as they were spoken in languages other than English, but that made the sound lyrical.  Just as I began to get out of bed, I heard voices raised in song; beautiful young African voices singing for all they were worth.  It was a wonderful way to start the day.

On my way to breakfast I met a woman from Australia.  She was lost and trying to find her way to breakfast.  I was lost too, but I acted like I knew where I was going just to have the chance to talk to her.  I learned that she has been visiting many countries for the past few months with her husband and some friends.  We had a nice chat and then she and her party went onto breakfast.

After breakfast, we traveled as a group to visit Venue 13 where we will be working documenting the performances put on by students from the California Institute of the Arts. The venue was being set up by the students from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. While there I met Clare, one of their instructors. We hit it off right away.  She had a big smile and eyes that sparkled when she laughed.  She told me the history of the building that will house Venue 13 as well as the history of the building across the street.  I learned from her that the building under renovation across from Venue 13 was the birthplace of Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations. We hung out at Venue 13 for a while and then we decided to spend the rest of the day exploring Edinburgh on our own.  I spent a delightful day with two of my classmates, Kendra and Melissa.  I have had classes with both of these young ladies, but today gave me a chance to know them better. Although not new to me, I consider spending time with them as one of the gifts of my splendid day.

Later in the day while having coffee,  I met two girls from Vienna, Austria. One young lady was intrigued by my accent and was trying to guess where I was from.  She knew it was the U.S. but was trying to pin down the state.  She was fun and very enthusiastic about being in Edinburgh for the Fringe festival. I enjoyed my conversation with her and her friend. Oh, and by the way, she never guessed what state I was from, I had to tell her I was from Maryland.

While walking to Edinburgh Castle we met a woman named Sarah Guppy . She is an author of short stories who was on the Royal Mile trying to sell her book.  Moreover, she was trying to get people to review her book.  She said that the competition between short story writers was intense and she was chatting with people to try to understand what would make people read collections of short stories instead of novels.  She was intense, focused about her writing and interested in carrying on a conversation with strangers. I found her brave and dedicated to her cause and I hope her book does well.

Around four in the afternoon it was time for a half pint.  Travel and beer go together so well!  The bartender at the Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar was delightful.  This must have been the day for guessing things about people, because she tried to guess the ages of Kendra and Melissa.  At first, while listening to her speak, I thought she was from Scotland.  But as she continued, it was apparent that she was from the U.S., Alabama to be exact. She made us laugh, welcomed us to sit anywhere and made us feel at home. She scored points for bartenders everywhere.

Today renewed my faith in people We hear so much about how poorly folks treat each other. Today I had nothing but great experiences meeting people new people and strengthening ties with my classmates. I hope as my stay continues I will be able to meet more interesting people and create some lasting friendships. That is the best part of traveling.

Picture of Andrea, Kendra and Melissa

Fun in Edinburgh, Scotland

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What makes a city a Festival City?

I’ve been thinking about this question since I started planning for my trip to Edinburgh, which is clearly a Festival City and not merely a city that happens to hold a festival. But where does the distinction lie? I think of festival cities as places that get completely swept up in an event throughout the town, where residents and visitors are equally likely to attend events, and where the normal order of things is suspended for several days.

But what causes these features to be present in some cities but not others?

New York, for example, is a worldly city with a million cultural things to do, but those things are about equally available and appealing throughout the year. There are festivals, of course, celebrating an exhibit, a composer, a film competition, or the like, but these festivals tend to occupy just a few pages of that week’s 100-page Time Out. On the other hand, a city like Montreal, where I lived for several years, transforms itself into festival central for the entire summer, starting with the Fringe Fest, Grand Prix weekend, the Jazz Fest, Just for Laughs, Francofolies, and more. Downtown streets become pedestrian-only spaces for much of the time, and there are noteworthy free and paid events happening almost every night. The festivals are able to attract big-name acts, which is great for the period of the festival; however, there may be a relative shortage of, for example, big-name jazz acts visiting during the rest of the year. I think of New Orleans (mardi gras, French Quarter fest, jazz fest) and Austin (South by Southwest) as other Festival Cities.

So, here are some of the qualities I associate with arts festivals and Festival Cities:

1. They are multidisciplinary, mixed-arts festivals. Festivals that limit themselves to a particular medium or genre will also limit their audience. One of the things that is so impressive about the Edinburgh Fringe program is the diversity: comedy, spoken word, theatre, music, and cabaret, each of which can be subdivided into too many bizarre subgenres to count. A man in an animal suit performing a monologue about his mother while riding a unicycle? The Fringe probably has about a dozen such shows. Want Shakespeare or Mozart straight up? The Fringe has that too.

2. They are democratic festivals that include free and ticketed events, in public as well as private spaces. Holding events outdoors and marking a street as “Festival Central” brings extra visibility to the event and allows people to attend while spending as much or as little money as they choose. The democratic nature also allows for an eclectic group of artists who participate.

3. The cities have a notable arts scene outside of festival season. I also think of festival cities as having a significant presence of college students and artists who are eager to be involved in the festivals.

4. The cities have lousy weather for a good portion of the year, which makes locals want to take advantage of the few months when temperatures are pleasant. This was definitely true in Montreal and my hometown of Buffalo, where locals never let a sunny day pass without a visit to a terrace. I suspect it is also a factor in Edinburgh, which can be dark and soggy for months.

What else could be added to this list? I hope that after two weeks in Edinburgh I’ll have some additional thoughts.

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Follow the Fringe 2014

And we’re back! The UMD iSchool is returning to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to document and archive three stage productions produced by CalArts and students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and all performed at Venue 13. In addition, this year we will be documenting a production by students from the York University Center for Film and Theater.Fringe Pre Class 2014

We, Lissa and Alex, are returning as #MLSfringe veterans (Class Coordinator and Librarian, respectively) to help lead our second year of students and we look forward to working with the class and Dr. Mary Choquette.

Fringe Pre Class 2014 DC exercise

On Monday, July 21st, we gathered in Hornbake Library to meet each other, go over safety in a foreign country, review logistics, and learn about documentation strategy from Dr. Choquette. The students finished the day with a documentation exercise where they interviewed each other and recorded the metadata for their interview.

We all arrive in Edinburgh Monday, July 28th. Our first group dinner will be at one of last year’s favorite spots, Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar, and the work at Venue 13 begins on Tuesday. Check this blog over the next two weeks for posts from each of the students and follow our journey daily on Twitter using the hashtag #MLSfringe.

~ Alex & Melissa

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Archivists: World Shapers and Window Makers

Every archival document has the capacity to act as a source of knowledge about the past, but a very particular, precious, and unique source. Archival documents are the only evidential window we have on the action-oriented past, because they arise in the course of our acting in relation to one another and to events in the world.

–Terry Eastwood, “How Goes it with Appraisal?”

During my previous job as a processing assistant, I loved to view each record as a little window into another world.  I would stare into each photograph, letter, or manuscript and wonder.  I would wonder what those people in the photograph looked like before they became little black-and-white pictures.  I would imagine what the air must have felt like around them and how the politics during their period affected their lives.  I would wonder if they loved someone or something.  And I would try to connect all the records in a collection like worlds in a universe and sculpt a story with them.  I always wished I could jump right into the photograph or become the hand that was penning the letter.  I wished that I could see and feel this other world, this world whose only connection to mine was through a little window that I would soon place into a protective sleeve and then into an acid-free box.

This trip to the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh allowed us to jump into another world. We were not just archivists, silent documenters and preservers of the world around us.  We were making active decisions that both affected history and the way people would remember it.  Each picture taken, camera angle chosen, and question asked potentially provided a different view of the world we were in. In other words, we were world shapers and window makers.

As window makers, we were lucky to have guidance, experience, and a clear strategy.  We were under the direction of two experienced archivists, Dr. Mary Choquette (UMD) and Kathy Carbone (CalArts).  All of us had at least one year of library school under our belts and therefore had a foundation of the basic principles and techniques behind the archival process.  Lastly, many of us (myself included) had archival experience.  We worked as a group to come up with a recording plan that would most accurately represent the show, an oral history technique that would allow us to gain needed information from the interviewees, and a cataloguing and metadata strategy that would best describe our archives.

As world shapers, we participated in Fringe festivities, attended shows, and interacted with the subjects we documented on a daily basis.  We made friends, both with each other and with the CalArts folks we worked with.  We ate, drank, and traveled together.  And many of our memories will only be within us.  But some of them have been captured, and it excites me to think that one day, someone might go through our collection.  And that person might look through our photos, read our blog posts, or watch our recordings.  And she might catch a wonderful glimpse of our world.

Below are a few of my favorite windows:

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ar(t)chives

I have dabbled in the arts all my life: danced ballet from toddler to teen; took up the cello around the time my Hogwarts letter got lost in the mail; studio art was always my favorite elective in grade school. Still, these various pursuits hovered around the hobby level for me, never quite progressing into a life’s passion. Regrettably, they have dropped away like other pastimes: relic slippers and cello case collect dust, glazed-clay projects molder on a shelf in my childhood home.

But I didn’t wander (totally) aimlessly through college. I followed a passion for language through an undergraduate degree in Russian, and found a burgeoning one in archival science. With a work study-turned-career path in archives, not to mention the first half of an MLS degree, I have a pretty clear notion at least of where I want to go in the near future.

It is thus that in my life, until this summer, art and archives have been like two separate groups of friends, ones from disparate phases of life which you find difficult to imagine sitting down together for drinks. (And when this does happen – speaking from experience – it really can be a bit like worlds colliding, at first.) However, I am pleased to say that I’ve found the awkwardness of a compartmentalized life collapsing on itself absent from the past two weeks of abounding art- and archive-related phenomena. In fact, I have relished the union of the two in my consciousness.

An archivist might metaphorically think of her dealings with records as a kind of communication: the record speaks to me; I learn about its history, and the history of the time whence it has come; records are messengers, reminding us of humble beginnings and forgotten details. But for two actors to perform the records – this takes the history lesson to a whole new level.

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Demarco’s gallery at Summerhall. The soil on the floor featured in the performance.

I hadn’t heard of Richard Demarco until about a week ago, when most of our group attended a special performance involving his collections at Summerhall in Edinburgh. Demarco’s Travels was not merely an art gallery exhibiting pieces from the archive of a prolific artist. It was a space embodying the spirit of the Richard Demarco Gallery, which in its 26-year life doubled as a performance venue during the Fringe. Performers Louise and Jodean, alongside narrator Noel Witts, of PALM presented a selection from Demarco’s archives in the most brilliantly authentic manner: they took the audience on a journey which transcended time or space with a live, physical interpretation of his records.

My experience with archives before this summer has been relatively limited – working in climate-controlled spaces, methodically processing records, ensuring certain standards are realized in order to protect the records of the federal government. I have learned that different care is required with photographs than with textual records, and different still with sound recordings; not all records are created equal. At the Fringe, at Demarco’s archives, I have now seen that art, and performance in particular, require a different care to sustain life. Sure, with a dry place to rest and a modicum of attention paid, Demarco’s collection will probably survive. Perhaps it will find a more permanent home, its future will become a surer thing, and the inquiring generations to come will have them to explore. But where it concerns the wider picture, the provenance of each drawing, each poster, each note in Demarco’s own hand – these become invaluably enhanced when viewed through the lens of performance art.

After a brief introduction by Noel about Richard Demarco and his history, he led us upstairs to where the “show” would begin. We were met by Jodean and Louise, two ladies skilled in dramatic speech and vision, and who led us on a most peculiar journey through several selections from the archive. Our group of about 10 people moved with them as they moved through the space of the stairwell, the gallery and a hallway. They spoke to us of destinations and uncertainty, of people and places; I began to feel like a part of the show as the performers navigated the space in close quarters with our group, and often seemed to address us directly, as though we were all on the “stage” together. It was super trippy, and I absolutely loved it.

My abandoned hobbies notwithstanding, I try to experience art whenever I can: in my pocket, headphones snaking out and up to my ears; college theater now and then; a poem a day keeps the dullness at bay. And now, having been mesmerized by an archive come to life through performance, I feel a better sense of that need records have for something beyond the folder, the box, the stacks where they reside indefinitely – the need to be found, examined, used; rejuvenated, re-purposed; displayed, enjoyed, shared. I spent an hour with Richard Demarco’s archives, and left with a strong desire to forge part of that surety, to make sure the performance didn’t end on 10 August when Louise, Jodean and Noel headed home from their Fringe run, that their successors will take up new gems in the collections and enact them for new audiences. That hour did more for me than any traditional gallery or reading room has ever done, and I’ve come out of it wanting to do the same for my own work in the future.

Further reading:

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Satori na h-Alba a dhà

we displaced all our rivals

and adorned our weapons systems with their names

we learned that the earth remembered

a thousand million sunrises

in complex hydrocarbon chains

and that with ingenuity

we could grow our own plants

of concrete steel and silicon

to fabricate our own memories

of noontimes near to hand.

It’s not as though you can just

uninvent an invention’s manufacture

but as we no longer die of smallpox

we must no longer die of war.

 

– Edinburgh 7 Aug 2013

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“we displaced all our rivals” composed with a Pilot Precise V5 XFine pen in an Ecosystem notebook serial # HM27010RB in Edinburgh, 7 Aug 2013.

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The Fringe is not an anarchy but can seem like one when contrasted with an event of similar magnitude such as the Games of an Olympiad, or the Paris Salon. Indeed, the Fringe is similar to the Salon de Refusés, the group showing of art rejected by Emperor Napoleon III’s Salon that spawned the Impressionist movement and changed French painting. The Fringe, with its refusal to adopt a central committee responsible for choosing what was in the festival and what was out, outgrew the Edinburgh International Festival to become the largest English-language performance festival in the world. People and perspectives from around the world seek the attention of those who come to watch as well as others who come to perform; everyone at the Fringe, it seems, spends some time as a flanêur of the type that Baudelaire embodied and Walter Benjamin attempted to capture in the Arcades Project.

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The flanêur stands apart, and through his or her gaze regards the life passing by on the street as theatre. Both Marcel Duchamp and John Cage had the operating belief that the spectator completes or realizes the artwork, that by lifting a moment out of the unnoticed everyday and giving it the right attention, it becomes theatre. Empires going back to the Romans did this by forcing the conquered to perform their rituals as entertainment for audiences. At the Fringe, all are there by choice, and everyone ends up participating in some way; there is no emperor to command.

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[Note: "na h-Alba" is Scottish Gaelic for "Scottish." "a dhà" is Scottish Gaelic for "two." "Satori" is a Japanese term for a form of enlightenment associated with Zen Buddhism]

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Satori na h-Alba a h-aon

I am not a stranger in this world

I’ve got my home right here

and no my home does not lie

along some policed border between word and flesh

the paradox lies in your conceptions

accepting the duality without accepting

being on the losing side of it

how then shall we find our way home

if there is no sure difference

between us and the mountain and the river

she asked as she folded her umbrella

yes, beyond the institutional memory

of approximations there is the smell of rain

and the ritual warmth, perhaps, of tea.

 

– Edinburgh 4 Aug 2013

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“i am not a stranger in this world” composed with a Pilot Precise V5 XFine pen on a single page of an Ecosystem journal serial # HM27010RB, Edinburgh, 4 Aug 2013.

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The conversation between two people, no matter how ritualized that conversation might actually be, cannot be reduced to an algorithm. It is not possible to enter a secret code, flip a switch, and be able to perfectly predict all that will be said between two people as they talk. Conversation requires listening, even when that listening is done in the dark watching an actor on stage. This is not to say that there are no formalisms that guide the theatre; there are many, and they evolve. Audiences today at Venue 13 and elsewhere become quiet when the house lights go down and applaud when they come up, but these are cultural conventions, not biological imperatives, and did not always happen. Formalisms now include algorithms implemented by computers, such as the programmatic reproduction of an encoded video digitally projected behind an actor to supplement the action on stage or of encoded sounds synchronously played over several speakers to create a sense of space and suggest things present but unseen.

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Indeed, there can be a sign we see, and an interpretation of that sign we make, which can through stagecraft allow us to be a part of that dreamlike world where the correlations that connect those signs and interpretants are not cardboard props and projections of videos, but are a world we share for all too brief a time with the actors who make that world vivid for us. It is different than watching a movie. For the magic time when the lights are down and the play is on, we breathe the same air as those actors in that world they are staging for us.

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And around us, the world goes on, not waiting for us to notice.

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[Note: "na h-Alba" is Scottish Gaelic for "Scottish." "a h-aon" is Scottish Gaelic for "one." "Satori" is a Japanese term for a  type of enlightenment found in Zen Buddhism.]

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