Ten things I love about Hungary

I was 14 years old when I first met a Hungarian. I was on a youth hostelling holiday in the Lake District in the north west of England, with some teachers and friends from Salford Grammar School. It was one of those youth hostels where you cooked for yourself or starved, and probably the first time in my life when I was given something to do in a kitchen (I know, I know, I should have been more persistent in my half-hearted attempts to help my mother when she was cooking).

Ernie Ashton, our History teacher, brought in a load of provisions and set us to work. My task was to peel potatoes. Ernie knew that a cack-handed left-hander like me wasn’t good at things like that and wryly asked me to leave enough of the potatoes to make it worth boiling them.

In the youth hostel kitchen, a tall very beautiful woman with a tanned complexion came and stood next to me and started preparing her food. She wore colourful clothing and her wild reddish-brown hair was tied back with a red ribbon. You remember details like that when you’re 14.

The ingredients of the meal she was preparing were very colourful too, and included items I had never seen in Salford, where tasty food was at a premium. The unknown ingredients that she was using were probably paprika, red peppers and garlic. The kind of stuff that was not freely available in the north of England in those days. Did she bring them with her?

She turned to me and smiled. I blushed to the roots of my hair and started peeling potatoes manically.

Ernie, a bachelor (what a quaint word), came to see how I was getting on. When he saw my companion, he grinned from ear to ear and introduced himself. She wiped her hands on her apron and shook hands with him. She gave her name, which I’m annoyed to say I’ve forgotten, and said she was from Hungary.

Ernie was clearly smitten. He took every opportunity to talk to her for the remainder of our stay there. I think he even suggested that we extend our stay in this particular hostel. This didn’t go down well with me and my schoolmates, because we knew that the next Youth Hostel on our itinerary offered cooked meals.

This was the 1960s. It seems remarkable that a Hungarian woman was travelling alone around England then. After the 1956 uprising, many Hungarians had come to live in the north of England – I was made even more aware of this years later when one of my nieces married the son of Hungarian refugees. But my kitchen companion wasn’t a UK resident. She definitely said she lived in Hungary.

It would be another twenty years before I managed to get to Hungary myself, but I think this first exposure to matters Hungarian made me secretly yearn to get there.

I love Hungarian food, but I think you can find good food everywhere, if you search. So let’s take it as read that the food is excellent, and look at ten other reasons to love the country.

1          The Bugaci horse riders

One man, two feet, five horses…

Dede and I used to do a summer school called Drama Plus in a rural venue near the village of Bugac, about 45 minutes drive from the city of Kecskemét, a city that can claim to be right at the central point of Europe. Nearby, there’s an equestrian centre which offers a unique tourism experience. Normally, I run a mile from any place which has tour buses parked outside, but I always made an exception for the extraordinary, brave and rather bonkers people who worked there.

As you can see from the picture, the highlight of the brilliant tourist event is the sight of one rider on five horses. He (it’s always a he – I wonder if any woman riders have asked to do it and been turned down) has a foot on two horses and holds the reins of three others.

If you’ve ever been to a racecourse, you will know how exciting it is to see horses pounding by. To see five horses controlled by just one man pounding by is heart-stopping stuff.

2          The clinking beer glass no-no

On the last day of the first Drama Plus course, the participants and organisers took Dede and me to a czarda, a rural restaurant. Dizzy with delight at the success of the event, I ordered a large beer, as did the Hungarian man sitting next to me.

When our beers arrived, we picked them up simultaneously. I immediately shouted ‘Cheers!’ and clinked my neighbour’s glass.

He wasn’t ready for this and his beer spilled all over his trousers. This was bad enough, but at the same time, the entire restaurant fell silent.

I can usually tell when I’ve made some kind of social gaffe and this was one of those moments.

“Um,” I said. “Did I do something wrong?” Apart from ruining his trousers, obviously.

“We don’t do that in Hungary,” said my shaken and rather wet companion.

I apologized to all and sundry and set about finding out what I had done that was bad enough to silence an entire restaurant. As often happens with things like this in Central Europe, you have to go back to 1848, a year of extreme change and political turmoil, for the answer.

The Austrians had suppressed an uprising by Hungarian nationalists and were preparing to execute the leaders. Before the executions took place, the Austrians celebrated noisily. They toasted their success in quelling the uprising by loudly clinking their beer glasses. On the first of January 1850, Hungarians made a pledge never to do that.

So now I knew, and I vowed never to make the same mistake again.

Seven years later, the English Teaching Theatre was invited to tour Hungary by the British Council. I warned the actors about clinking glasses. On the last night of the tour, we were sitting round a table with Gabor Szucs, who had been our BC helper and minder on the tour. Dominic, one of the actors, picked up a glass of beer and said “Cheers!”

He suddenly remembered the embargo on clinking.

“Oh! Sorry, Gabor!” he said. “We aren’t allowed to do that, are we?”

Gabor shook his head. “No, it’s OK,” he replied. ‘Now you can do it.”

What? We can clink glasses now? Why – because it’s half past ten at night? Or because it’s a Monday?

Gabor explained.

“Hungarians agreed not to do that for one hundred and fifty years,” he said. “So on the first of January 2000, we started doing it again.” Brilliant. The pledge had been for exactly a hundred and fifty years. Hungarians woke up on New Year’s Day 2000 knowing they could do it again. I love countries that pride themselves on their traditions!

3          The language

Hungarian is just about the most difficult language in the world that uses the Roman alphabet. It’s an agglutinative language, which means basically that you stick lots of endings onto words to change their meaning or grammatical function.

Actually, ‘stick lots of endings’ is only half, or a third, of the story. Hungarian uses prefixes, suffixes and even a circumfix (I’m not making this up). Prepositions are much too easy for Hungarians, so they use postpositions, adding to the already crowded amount of stuff you have to deal with after nouns, which can also, just to make things interesting, have up to eighteen cases.

If that wasn’t difficult enough, there are hardly any cognates for speakers of other languages, except possibly speakers of Finnish, although the Finnish dispute the number of common words.

I also found this great bit of information online….

Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért, with 44 letters is officially the longest Hungarian word which is actually in use, and which means something like “for your [plural] keeping behaving as if you could not be profaned”. I can imagine SO many situations where I might need to say that.

The website goes on to point out that it is possible to create words like összetettszóhosszúságvilágrekorddöntéskényszerneurózistünetegyüttes-megnyilvánulásfejleszthetőségvizsgálatszervezésellenőrzésiügyosztály-létszámleépítésellenesakciócsoporttagságiigazolványmegújításikérelem-elutasítóhatározatgyűjteményértékesítőnagyvállalatátalakításutó-finanszírozáspályázatelbírálóalapítványkuratóriumelnökhelyettesellenesmerény-letkivizsgálóbizottságiüléselnapolásiindítványbenyújtásiformanyomtatványkitöltögetésellenőrizhetőségpróba

which is 447 characters long and refers to a committee and its cognizance.

I love the fact that as an afterthought, the editor writes: “Of course, in reality such a committee could not exist.”

4          The Nobel prize winners

Albert Szent-Györgyi

Hungary has had more Nobel Prize winners relative to its population than any other nation on earth. The most famous is probably Albert Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt (1893-1986), a physiologist who discovered Vitamin C. He was also active in the Hungarian Resistance during World War Two. Brave as well as bright.

For the sake of balance, please note that Elek Mathe, who is Hungarian, disputes this claim about his compatriots in the comments below.

5           Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis (1818-1865)

Ignác Semmelweis

Semmelweis didn’t win a Nobel Prize, but without him, most of us might not be here. He was a physician who discovered that the incidence of puerperal (childbed) fever could be drastically reduced if people – mainly doctors – washed their hands. Puerperal fever was common in hospitals throughout Europe at the time. Up to a third of children who contracted the disease died, and often their mothers did too.

Despite repeatedly publishing details of his discovery that hand-washing reduced infant mortality to below one per cent, Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur made it famous.

Before number 6, a brief preamble…

I saw my first live soccer match in 1958 when I was ten years old. It was a friendly between Manchester United and Real Madrid, which took place in the aftermath of the Munich air disaster.

In February of that year, the plane carrying the Manchester United team back from a European game in Belgrade crashed on take-off at Munich Airport, where it had stopped to re-fuel, resulting in the death of half of the young team managed by the great Matt Busby.

The game against Real Madrid was one of the many events designed to remember that team, and to raise money for the families of the people who died.

My dad wasn’t much of a soccer fan, so it was a surprise when he came home with two tickets for the match, and suggested that we go and see it together.

I couldn’t really have chosen a better one to start a life-long love affair with the beautiful game. Read Madrid won 6-1, and I was introduced to the glorious style of football that was Real’s stock in trade in those days.

I remember noticing that one of the Real players was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit fatter than the others. He was also the most gifted player on the pitch. His name was Ferenc Puskás, and he had been one of the Hungarian national soccer team that were known as ….

6         The Magnificent Magyars

Hungary was by far the best soccer team on the planet in the early 1950s. When they won the 1952 Olympic title in Helsinki, they were in the middle of a three-and-a-half-year unbeaten run. Between June 1950 and November 1955, they scored 220 goals in 51 matches, an astonishing average of more than four goals a game.

More importantly, from an England fan’s point of view, on the 25th November 1953, this gifted team came to Wembley Stadium in London, a place where England had never been beaten, and won 6-3. The Hungarians played the most exhilarating football ever seen in this country. The dynamic attacking skills of Puskás, Hidegkuti and Kocsis had England’s defence in tatters.

The Magnificent Ms proved this wasn’t a fluke by beating England 7-1 in Budapest the following spring. After that, everyone expected them to win the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.

After coasting effortlessly through the group stage of the competition, they met West Germany in the final. The Hungarians had already beaten the Germans 8-3 in the group stage (8-3! In a match at the World Cup finals!) and were expected to win the final in a canter.

Things didn’t go quite as planned, however. In his book Behind The Curtain, Jonathan Wilson described the build-up to the match:

The Hungarians’ sleep was disturbed by brass bands practising in the street for the Swiss national championship and their team bus was prevented by police from entering the stadium, forcing the players to battle their way through the crowds to the dressing room. And then there was the weather. It rained throughout the day before the final, and then it rained heavily during the game, transforming an already soft pitch into a quagmire that hampered Hungary’s passing game.

It was a much more closely-fought game than the earlier one and Germany were leading 3-2 with just a minute to go when Puskás scored, only for the goal to be ruled offside by a linesman, denying the Hungarians the chance of extra time. Never one to mince his words, Puskás described the decision as scandalous and said he wanted to murder the linesman involved, who was – sorry, Hungarian friends – from England.

Two years later in 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and Puskás and his team-mates left the country to ply their trade elsewhere.

7         The Hotel Gellért in Budapest

The Hotel Gellért is famous for its spa and outdoor swimming pool, which has a wave machine that was installed in the 1950s, one of the first, possibly THE first, in Europe. The hotel was built in the early 1900s on the site of a medicinal spring that had already been famous for about seven centuries. The spa is decorated with a wealth of original art nouveau furnishings, artistic mosaics and stained glass windows.

That’s enough tour guide stuff. For me, the Gellért brings back lots of wonderful memories because the staff were always so grumpy.

Dede and I always used to go there at the end of the Drama Plus course, occasionally to stay but usually just to have a coffee and cake. The café prices were eye-wateringly high, and the waitstaff always seemed to be in a bad mood.

Alternatively, you could go into the bowels of the hotel to the famous Turkish baths, where you could be pummeled by equally grim-faced, monosyllabic masseurs.

All in all, it was a simultaneously hilarious and miserable experience, and gave us lots of ammunition for dinner party stories.

I’ve been back more recently and the staff have clearly all been to charm school, and smile when they serve coffee. It isn’t the same.

8     Bottle dancing

Traditional Hungarian dancing is brilliant. The men strut around in what look like mediaeval army costumes, with tall boots that they slap mercilessly, usually when they’re about two metres off the ground. It all gets a bit tiresomely macho after a while, but improves considerably when the women get the stage to themselves. Their performance usually culminates with the placing of bottles of strong alcohol on their heads. They continue to dance to the high-speed infectious music.

If you’re sitting in the front row, it is really exciting and just ever so slightly nerve-wracking, as they weave through their rhythmic moves and you calculate the likelihood of the bottle falling off and hitting you on the head.

Highly recommended (the dancing, that is, not the bottle hitting you on the head).

9     Szeged

Szeged is a city in the south of the country, quite close to the Serbian border. I’ve enjoyed all the Hungarian cities that I’ve visited, but there’s something a bit special about Szeged. Quite apart from anything else, it has 365 statues, many of which, like the one in the picture, look like people having a well-earned rest after walking round the city.

10      Péter Medgyes

If you work in English Language Teaching, you’ve probably heard of Péter Medgyes, the author of the definitive book about being a non-native teacher of English.

I first encountered Péter when he heckled me during a talk I was giving at the IATEFL Hungary conference in Szombathely in (I think) 1995. The terrible thing was that I completely misunderstood what he said, which was complimentary and rather nice, and made some acid remark in reply. I have never forgiven myself for that lapse, although Péter has, many times over.

Péter is the sunniest, most optimistic person you could hope to meet. When I met him, he was working at CETT, the ground-breaking teacher training centre in Budapest, along with many other superstars of Hungarian ELT, like Péter Rádai and Margit Szesztay.

At a certain point, he was swept up into national politics, and served in the Ministry of Education. The next time I bumped into him, he was Hungarian Ambassador to Syria. He had once stayed in my house in London and, to return the hospitality, he urged me to come and stay in Damascus. I’m sad to say I never made it, but happy to note that Péter eventually decided that he wanted to give up the world of diplomacy and return to academic life.

Péter Medgyes and his son Bálint and me at Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC, September 2012

So there are the first ten things I love about Hungary, and no mention of the wondrous city of Budapest, the amazing Pálinka fruit brandy or the to-die-for Hortobágy pancakes. You’ll just have to visit and find out about those for yourselves.

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10 Responses to “Ten things I love about Hungary (Numbers 6-10)”

  1. Andy H Says:
    October 22, 2010 at 08:27 editOne day I’ll bend your ear about my alternative narrative regarding the 1954 World Cup final, but I don’t really have the time to go into it now…
  • Ken Wilson Says:
    October 22, 2010 at 08:30 editBlog about it!

  • Mike Harrison Says:
    October 22, 2010 at 08:35 editHi Ken,
    I’m not an avid football fan at all, but I have to say I found Wilson’s book to be fascinating. Must have been quite something to see players like Puskás and Di Stefano in the flesh!
    Thinking more and more I should visit Hungary this summer. I have some planning to do!
    Mike =)

    • Ken Wilson Says:
      October 22, 2010 at 08:41 editGood thinking, Mike!whatever you plan in Hungary, it’s a great place to visit. Budapest, the puszta (plain), a river trip, a wine tour… it’s all good…

  • Evandro Gueiros Says:
    October 22, 2010 at 13:58 editWhat a great surprise to me – I didn’t know your debut in football dated back to 1958. Two years later, I came into being! I have never been to Hungary and your post on the country increases my curiosity.The first job of the current Hungarian Consul in Fortaleza was at our Cultura Inglesa. Her name is Sofia Eross. She was also one of our students before working at Cultura. Many years later she become Consul. We have become good friends and one of her children is studying with us now. Sofia is married to a Cearense and all her family live in Budapest.Congratulations Ken – a lovely post on what really seems to be a wonderful country to enjoy a visit to.

    • Ken Wilson Says:
      October 22, 2010 at 14:43 editWelcome to my blog, Mr Gueiros!Evandro is my best friend in Brazil and runs the Cultura Inglesa in Fortaleza in the province of Ceara (in case anyone reading this doesn’t understand ‘Cearense’).Amazing to think that I was watching soccer even before you were born, Evandro! :P

  • David Blackie Says:
    October 24, 2010 at 11:34 editHi Ken – very nice blog! Being (even) older than you I also recall the Munich air crash. I was born in Manchester and had decided that I would cheer when Man U won and hide when they lost (which wasn’t often), and I remember we were all shaken by this disaster, which of course Bobby Charlton famously survived. Excellent that you got to that match with Real Madrid.And good to see you at the Language Show.bw, David

    • Ken Wilson Says:
      October 24, 2010 at 22:03 editWow, David – I’ve known you how long? And didn’t realise you were a Manc. What I didn’t say in the preamble was that I was already a Man City fan, cos everyone at my primary school was, but Munich ended those petty divisions for a while.I also saw Man United/Real Madrid the following year from a seat in the directors’ box, thanks to an uncle with friends in high places. Went by myself, and was viewed with some suspicion by all these cigar-smoking Manchester businessmen. United won the second match 3-2.

  • Kati Says:
    October 26, 2010 at 13:16 editGreat post – fills me with nostalgia (especially nr 9…). Btw, staff from Gellért appear to have relocated to nearby Gresham (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gresham_Palace) where prices bear no comparison to anywhere else in the city and no relation to the level of service either. But if you’ve not been, you must take a peek next time you’re in lovely Bpest. Art Nouveau at its finest!

    • Ken Wilson Says:
      October 26, 2010 at 16:18 editWill do that, Kati – was really pleased to get back there last month and I hope I don’t have to wait another five years for a visit :P

17 thoughts on “Ten things I love about Hungary

  1. Re: 3: I have been taught that you can’t have a Hungarian word of more than seven syllables and once it breaks 7 you have to split it up. That 44 letter word has (I think) 16, which makes it impossible under the guidelines I understand. (Not that I ever get to 7 syllables before resorting to circumlocution anyway). Can a Hungarian speaker comment on my 7 syllable rule?

    1. I know I’m a bit late, but I’m a native Hungarian, if that’s any consolation 🙂
      So, about the 7 syllable rule: prefixes, sufixes, etc don’t count, as they are part of the word, they are “glued to” the stem, you cannot divide them with the hyphen. As for the complex words, which consist of two or more “main” words you should use the hyphen for words longer than 7 syllables.

  2. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that Ferenc Puskás will feature in the second tranche. 😛

  3. Andy H,
    Split up with a hyphen. But then they are not two words. Which makes a difference.
    Anyway, it’s wonderful to see that you love so many things about such a small country. I am looking forward to reading the rest.
    Best regards.

  4. Hi Ken
    Very funny and enlightening as always. Brings back great memories for me -1992, my first teaching job in Siofok by Lake Balaton. My girlfriend and I were aiming for Greece in our campervan but didn’t make it that far. Still some of fondest memories from the classroom are of this time, the excitement of the children at meeting two westerners for the first time, and actually being taught [sic] by them, was amazing.

    1. Thanks, David…

      I can’t think of a better place to finish up than Lake Balaton, if your camper van gives up the ghost. 😛

  5. Hi ken ,
    As always ,your blog was so interesting.It’s good to see some countries that struggle to preserve their tradition.While reading your blog ,I just thought that if I went to a restaurant there with my friends ,I would do the same thing,probably -I would clink my beer. It’s a world full of differences and that is what makes life worthy . Looking forward to the other five -:))

    1. Thanks, Gita …

      and the beer story just goes to show that you only learn by making mistakes. That’s why mistakes in the language class should be PRAISED to the heavens. 😛

  6. Ken, what a shame I missed you when you were here in Hungary at the beginning of October.
    Thanks for another thought-provoking post! You’ve brought up two of my hobby horses, so I can’t resist responding.
    One of them is found in this sentence: “Hungary has had more Nobel Prize winners relative to its population than any other nation on earth.”
    This is a myth we Hungarians made up. Fairly successfully, I should add, as you can find this information repeated in millions of places. We use clever but rather aggressive PR techniques to keep the myth alive. For example, all Hungarians feel obliged to share this trivia bit with a foreigner within the first five minutes of a conversation.
    And now, the facts (boring, I know). We actually have two Nobel prize winners, which puts us outside around 27th place. Some people would say we only have one (Szentgyörgyi) because when Kertész Imre (note the Hungarian order: family name followed by first name) won the Nobel Prize for literature a few years ago some Hungarians felt it was appropriate to mention that he’s not Hungarian – he’s Jewish. This disgrace often gets repeated in right-wing newspapers and other publications, where it has become customary to call the author “Imre Kertész” even in Hungarian, where we are supposed to have the surname first – this is a major insult in Hungary, comparable only to a racial slur, as it shows that you don’t consider the other person Hungarian.
    Back to the topic: if you want to inflate this figure (2) and include everyone whose Hungarian connections are mentioned on the website of the Nobel prize website, you can get nine; this puts us around 17th place – still not good enough.
    We Hungarians like to exaggerate and say we have 16 Nobel prize winners, but this figure already includes laureates who were married to someone who knew someone who once read a book about Hungary – we’ll do anything to claim a Nobel Prize winner.
    OK, so we have 16 of them (not true, but let’s claim 16, they’ll never notice). With a population of 10 million, this puts us in… exactly 10th place. Overtaken by countries like Great Britain, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway – happy countries where they don’t count the number of Nobel Prize winners relative to a country’s population to try and desperately claim that they’re worthy.
    So, how did we come up with this claim that we’re first in this category? (A category that doesn’t exist, really – we made it up, just like the result.) Easy: we like to make claims without any foundation whatsoever. We’re not bothered by facts. Someone once said in a conversation, with reference to a feature of Hungarian vocabulary: “This just doesn’t exist in any other language. You can only make this distinction in Hungarian.” I said, hey, do you know all the languages in the world? And incidentally, you *can* make this distinction in English too – and translated the two phrases for them. The response: yeah, but it’s still not the same, is it?
    We also claim that Hungarian cuisine is world famous. Too bad nobody in the world knows this and they go to Chinese, Italian, Indian, Mexican or French restaurants instead.
    We believe Hungarian wines are the best in the world. Who drinks French or Italian wines, anyway?
    We also like to say that Hungarian hospitality is world famous too. Sadly, we have statistics to show that more than 80% of Hungarians have strong anti-immigration feelings, but still, we’re proud that we’re so open and friendly.
    One thing we also like ask foreigners whether they had heard that in the past Hungary had three seas. We never follow up by asking: and did you know it’s not true? Yeah, just another myth. Like the one about our language, but this comment is getting way too long anyway, I should continue later.

    1. Elek…

      wow – you’ve certainly cleared up a few points for me there!

      I’d better re-name the article, Nine things I love about Hungary.

      In all seriousness, I appreciate your searing honesty, but I still really like Hungary. And the fact is, those of us who only really connect with English teachers, don’t USUALLY encounter much racism.

      (I amended your original comment with information from the second)

  7. Thanks, Ken, I feel humbled by your personal reference! Great photo of you and the Medgyeses. Enjoy your time in Eger :)!

  8. Hi Ken,
    I don’t know if you know about this (or if you’re interested at all), but the 1953 England-Hungary match is available on DVD at http://www.sportmania.hu/product_info.php?products_id=39781&language=en
    You should also look into Hungarian waterpolo, especially the 1956 match against the USSR at the Athens Olympics. There’s a thourough documentary on YouTube, “Freedom’s Fury”.
    The Nobel Prize issue can be solved easily: there’s a list on Wikipedia of all the Nobel Prize winners which can viewed by countries too.
    I know it’s an old post, so I just hope you’ll see this comment 🙂
    Have a nice day!

  9. Dear Ken,

    I really enjoyed reading your articles about Hungary and Hungarian culture. I hope your site is helping people to understand who we are and why people should visit my Country at least once. As I live in the UK the feelings about our food, wine and culture become more and more important. Unfortunately the economy is quiet bad back there and the politicians don’t seem to do anything about it! But Hungary is still my Home, my Land, my Mother! My little 3 years old daughter grew up here in London, but I still want to show her the beautiful Hungarian hills, fields, landscapes and teach her the how to cook traditional meals. I decided to start a mission and tell people about Hungarian food and wine all around the world. I know I am a little drop in the ocean, but I believe if I just bring a smile to one of them who are reading about Hungary, at least I did something good. I made a Facebook Page for people whom LOVE Hungarian Food and Wine. I just started yesterday and it has already more than 60 LIKEs what means it could be very popular. If you could help me to share the link with your friends who are interested about Hungary it would be great help.
    Thank you very much and if you ever want to taste some traditional Hungarian meals and wine in London you are always welcome for a Sunday lunch with my family.
    Thank you for reading my massage.

    Oh and this is the link of the Facebook page we started and want to make popular:


  10. Hello Ken! Thank you so much for this lovely post! I’ve enjoyed every word, and not just because I am Hungarian 🙂
    Today is International Day of Happiness, so I wish you a very happy day. You already made me happy with this article 🙂

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