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by Richard Nilsen

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When I was so young that I was just entering the tunnel of adolescence, I sent a joke into the Reader’s Digest. The Digest was the primary reading material in our house, and they had a regular feature with funny definitions of words. Mine was a definition for “euphemism,” which I said was “synonym and sugar.”
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I never heard back from the august publishers. Perhaps they rejected me out of hand, perhaps they never got my letter, or perhaps they just smelled the anti-acne cream on the paper.
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Even at that age, I knew that I had an abnormal interest in the English language, and language in general. From the second grade onward, when we had weekly lists of vocabulary words to memorize and use in sentences, I habitually attempted to use all 10 words in a single sentence, just to be a smartass.
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So, it is hardly surprising that eventually, I became a writer. And a smartass — at the newspaper where I earned my crust, I enjoyed making up words to sneak past the editors. In one six month period, I made a game of inventing some word in each and every story I submitted, and to my surprise, and great pleasure, got them all through the checkpoints and safeguards. I never knew whether the editors assumed the words must be real, or if they just thought, well, that’s Nilsen, whatcha gonna do?
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But, back to synonyms. Part of the captivating magic of words for me was always their various halos, or nimbuses of meaning. No word stands alone, naked and singular, but rather, each is a spinning molecule composed of a cluster of atoms, each a different connotation, so that I became early convinced that there really is no such thing in the English language as a synonym. Not really.
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English is a promiscuous language. It lets anyone have its way, and it permits all kinds of immigrants take up residence. A fluent or native speaker of Spanish has a vocabulary estimated at about 10,000 words while the Oxford English dictionary contains 228,132 words either defined or as subentries. That does include a good number of words no longer in current usage (words I often like to attempt to resuscitate), but even so, there are about 170,000 of the little squiggles that are commonly in use, although no one uses all of them. The average is 10,000 words in an ordinary person’s word-hoard (the Old-English kenning for vocabulary).
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Shakespeare, admittedly an outlier, had a personal vocabulary of about 66,000 words. Some of those, he seems to have coined himself.
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The reason is that so many of our words have companions from Germanic and Romance languages, so, we have hogs, pigs, pork, or cows, steers and beef. To be called hoggish is different from being called swinish or piggish or porcine. Shades of meaning.
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Each word traces its family history to another region of the globe, including China (ketchup), India (pajamas, or if you are British, pyjamas), Aztec Mexico (tomato), Africa (okra) or the Middle East (candy).
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And so, there are many words that have overlapping meanings. But a sensitive ear ferrets out the subtle differences. Take “flammable” and “inflammable.” On the surface, they seem like they should be antonyms, but they mean the same thing. Or almost.
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“Flammable” implies burnable while “inflammable” implies something able to be set on fire. A subtle difference, but there, nonetheless.
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“Quiet” is a good thing in the bustle of a city, but when things go “silent,” you should start worrying.
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A “writer” sends letters or publishes in a newspaper; and “author” produces books.
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Each synonym has a slightly different shade of meaning, and a good writer (or author) used those differences to his or her advantage. It is an issue of awareness.
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“Sad” and “unhappy” are interesting, because “unhappy” is both more ephemeral than “sad” — if you are “unhappy” about an outcome, you aren’t necessarily feeling “sad” and get over it quickly— but also permanent — an “unhappy” marriage is longer lasting than a sad mood.
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So wrapped up in language am I that I have imagined languages other than those actually spoken. I once invented a language — not the language itself, not like a secret “twin language,” but rather the grammar and rules of an imaginary language spoken by imaginary peoples.
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It helps me think about the possibilities and limits of language.
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The language was spoken by a tribal group on an island in the Indian Ocean, recognizable to anyone who watched old movies on TV. So, there is a joke in the description. See if you get it.
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The story is presented in the form of a fictional “translator’s note” for a fictional book about this fictional island, which bears the name which is a synonym of “cranium.”
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To wit:
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Translator’s Note
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All the translations in this book are by the author, save only those in passages by books cited in the bibliography.
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A few notes about the difficulty of translating the native language of the Kandeni Islands might be in order. Those tiny islands in the Indian Ocean (approximately 2 degrees South and 90 degrees East), and their primary island, Kandei, were undiscovered until 1933 (vide Cooper and Schoedsack, 1933), and so remote are they that their language and customs seemingly grew in isolation for centuries, if not millennia. A few relics in their language suggest they had contact with cultures in the South Andaman Sea in earlier eras, perhaps related to the extinct Jangil peoples, but in the main, their language is unique.
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By far, the primary difficulty in their language is the fact that it has only two verbs, which might best be described as the verb to be and the verb to do, one active, one passive. Every usage is intelligible only in context. The language has nouns with cases, adjectives that mirror those cases and a few prepositions and a few vestigial conjunctions. There are no articles.
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This bifurcation of verb is essential to their organization of the world. Things — whatever they are — either be or do. They exist as essences or they exist as agents. Every act is merely a morph of the simple act of doing. Running, speaking, sleeping, eating — they are all seen as variants of a single act.
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For the elders who spoke to me, this is taken as obvious: Their mythology (see Chapter 3) revolves around the dichotomy of being and doing, and their gods, if you can call them that (they may also be seen as ancestors), fall into two categories, the “be-ers” and the “do-ers.” These supernatural beings (I use our terminology — they do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural) are at odds, if not at war (the stories vary from family to family).
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On first approach, it may appear that the language is simple to the point of being rudimentary, but in fact, with these few elements, it has grown into a language of immense complexity, requiring of its speaker — and listener — not only great subtlety but awareness of its context. The same sentence in the morning may mean something different after the sun begins its descent.
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As one might expect, that although there are only two verbs, there are many nouns. The Kandeian people have words for the things of their world, but not static words. A certain plant, for instance, will have a different noun for its seedling, for its fruiting or for its use by native animals. Linguistically, they are different things, even if our Linnean system sees them as merely phases of the same plant. This is true as it is for us, for instance, who think of a boy as different from a man, a puppy as different from a dog. For them, the manioc plant is a different plant before it grows a sufficient tuber. For us, these distinctions are vestigial, for them, they are applied to almost everything in their ecosystem.
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The prepositions come in five varieties, describing being above something, under something, around something or in something and finally away from something. There is no before or after: That is expressed by saying something like “I here (to be), he here (to be), and the listener infers from context that the one happened before the other.
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Adjectives and adverbs are undifferentiated; they are universal modifiers and no distinction is made between a fast runner and running fast (or in the language “active verb fast.”
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A few examples might help.
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A standard statement might include first a subject, like the personal pronoun, “I,” followed by the object of the sentence followed by one of the two verbs. If you were to express a simple idea, such as “I throw the ball,” the sentence would be constructed as “I ball (active verb).” Or “I ball do.” The “I” is in the nominative case, the “ball” in the objective. The “do” or “act” is understood as something you do with the ball — which in context would most likely be understood as “throw.” The speaker might mimic the act of throwing, but this is not necessary. If you needed to express something else, such as “I sat on the ball,” you would have to express this with not only the sentence, but with gesture. “I ball (do)” and a short squatting gesture. Why you might want to sit on a ball, I don’t know.
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The other verb expresses both condition and essence — both the concepts that in Spanish are divided by “ser” and “estar.” To say “I am here,” the sentence would be built as “I here (to be).” “Here” is in the locative case. Other places would likewise be in the locative. “I river (to be).” There is no tense expressed. Again, tense is implied by context or by extension: “I river yesterday (to be).”
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Naturally, such a language can only be meaningful in a face-to-face encounter. The many gestural inflections cannot be captured in print or over a telephone. Neither of which, I hardly need to say, the Kandeian peoples do not have.
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When they were discovered by a passing tramp steamer in 1933, it is estimated there were perhaps 400 Kandeian speakers on the island. In the intervening time that number has dropped precipitously; there are now estimated to be under a hundred left, although a precise census has never been taken, in part because the Kandeians resist outside visitors, and in part because the island is so wild and overgrown, cross-country travel is extremely hazardous (ibid, Cooper and Schoedsack).
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I spent two years on the island in the late 1980s, studying the language and customs. I spoke with several family leaders — a position gained not by force or vote, but by assent — and they told me their stories and the stories of their ancestors. This raises another distinct quality of their language. When discussing everyday events, they speak in an ordinary pitch and volume, as you or I might. But when relating myth, they speak in a high pitch and with little inflection. They can revert back and forth with seemingly no difficulty as they interweave the mythic with the quotidian.
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This way of speaking also functions as a kind of subjunctive mood, as it is also used to express things that might not be, or might occur in the future. So, for the Kandeian, linguistically at least, the past — other than a personal past — and the future are equally mythic. In the middle, there is the lifetime remembrance of the speaker, which is taken as indicative rather than subjunctive; all else is relegated to myth, or a time that may have been or might become.
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The problems of rendering such a language in English should be manifest. When I translate the words of Ruthentay, leader of his family, I must interpret his meaning into English rather than literally translate. Certainly this is the case when translating from any language to another; the problems of turning Tolstoy into readable English is well known. But with the Kandeian Islander, this is raised to an exponential degree. I cannot just give the words Ruthentay speaks, but must render them as if they had been spoken in English. This distorts them in ways that break my heart, but it cannot be otherwise.
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In those cases where no English equivalent exists, as for certain food items of the Kandeian diet, I must use transliterations of the native words. I am sorry if this causes confusion but again, there seems no way around it.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

by Richard Nilsen

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“Constantinople is not Constantinople anymore…”
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That’s how the song goes. “Constantinople is now Istanbul…” etc. etc. for the rest of the tune. The change in name happened officially in 1926, although it took until the 1950s before the switch made it down to the level of a pop tune.
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This is hardly the first time that the city on the Bosphorus has switched identities. If we look in the rearview mirror, the city has been named Stamboul, Istanbul, Constantinople, Islambol, Constantinople (again), Byzantium, Nova Roma, Augustina Antonina, Byzantium (again) and, according to Pliny the Elder, was first founded as the city of Lygos by Thracian immigrants in 13th or 11th century B.C.E.
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Besides the official names, there are the names the city was known by in other languages and cultures. For instance, the Vikings called it Miklagarth or “Big Wall.” It is Tsargrad (or “Caesar City”)  in old Slavic languages (and remains so in Bulgarian). To the Persians, it was Takht-e Rum, or “Throne of the Romans.” In Medieval Spain, it was Kostandina. And in old Hebrew, it was Kushta.
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During the Ming Dynasty in China, the city was Lumi, but in the Qing Dynasty it was Wulumu, or alternately, Gongsidangdinebole. That’s a mouthful. In modern Pinyin Chinese, it is Yisitanbao, in which you can hear the echo of “Istanbul.”
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Ukraine wheat and flag

I bring this up, oddly, because Ukraine is so much in the news. When I was learning geography in grade school (another outdated name), it was “the Ukraine,” very much parallel to “the Argentine,” or “the Midwest.” A few years ago, the definite article was officially sent packing.
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The issue was born of history. In the 12th century, the city of Kiev dominated the trade routes from northern Europe to Constantinople and the region developed into a quasi-nation called the Kievan Rus. Later, the city of Moscow, to the north, grew stronger and became dominant.
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And so, there were two Russias and the larger, ruled by Moscow, acquired the name “Russia,” and the lesser became known as “Little Russia,” or Malaya Rossiya, or, for short, Mala Rus.
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(Excuse this oversimplification of history. This is not even the Cliff Notes version of Russian and Ukrainian history and leaves out a whole lot, but I hope gives the gist of what goes on with the naming of the spot on the globe. I have not even begun to mention the Tatars.)
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To continue: With Muscovite Russia taking over, what was called Little Russia was seen as a kind of borderland between Russia and Poland. A “buffer zone.” Russia has always been obsessed with buffer zones. By the most commonly accepted etymology, “Ukraine” means “borderland.” And hence, the definite article. The Ukraine: The Borderland.
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As a digression — Piotr Illich Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies. The three final ones are huge, grand statements and a bulwark of the symphonic repertoire. The first three are lesser works. His second symphony is known as the “Little Russian” symphony. Many people have assumed it was a smaller symphony that was somehow Russian. But it is named for the composer’s use of Ukrainian folk tunes in the music. Hence: “Little Russian.”
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Back to the story. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, there was a backlash against any idea that their nation was the little brother and popular sentiment abhorred the older idea of Little Russia. They resented the popular image that they were the hicks and hillbillies of the Steppes. And they equally it hurt their national pride that they were merely a borderland between other, more important powers.
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The country also has a more recent beef with their former overlords. Through the first half of the 20th century, Ukraine was devastated by Soviet    policy. In the 1930s, untold millions were starved to death by Stalin. Later, untold millions were killed by Hitler. This sorry story is recounted brilliantly in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands. Grim but important reading.
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And so, once they were independent, in 1991, they asked the world to drop the article in their name, and on Dec. 3 of that year, the Associated Press officially changed the style and asked newspapers to use “Ukraine” and no longer “the Ukraine.”
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I remember when that happened. I was working at The Arizona Republic; it was a small footnote to that year. The AP frequently updates its stylebook, but the loss of the “the” struck me at the time as kind of ugly. Linguistically, I liked the distinction the nation had as an outlier. I have always liked language anomalies.
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Sorry. I keep getting distracted. So, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Russian-ish troops into eastern Ukraine, the leader of the separatist movement and head of the self-proclaimed state of Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Sakharchenko, proposed renaming his portion of the Ukraine as Malarus, or “Little Russia,” to acknowledge his allegiance to the idea of a single grand Rus. The idea went nowhere; even the Russian-leaning populace wanted to distance themselves from the old idea of “little brother.”
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We have a habit, probably hard-wired into our evolution, of thinking of the world as static, as a given. We may change, we may age, we may marry and divorce, but the land we live on is permanent. It is not.
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Not only are nations and borders constantly shifting, but rivers change course, mountains lose half their height overnight (Mt. St. Helens or  Vesuvius). You can find on the internet several YouTube animations demonstrating the wiggling, shifting borders of nations over the past thousand years. Poland notoriously rolls around like mercury on a plate. Even after World War II, the whole of Poland lifted up its skirts and moved 200 miles to the west.
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Western Europe 1300-1900

But for our purpose here, it is the names of places that I want to point out. They change constantly. Either because the old name has demeaning connotations, or because of political change, or the splitting up of ethnic portions of a once-single nation, or the rising linguistic influence of a powerful imperialist neighbor.
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So, not only has the Ukraine become Ukraine, but Peking has become Beijing; Bombay is now Mumbai; Upper Volta became Burkina Faso. Cambodia turned to Kampuchea, but then went back. Burma tried on Myanmar and is now loosening up to be Burma again. But Rangoon is pretty secure as Yangon.
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As political influence shifts, names come in and out of circulation. Where Germany and Poland contend, you sometimes have both names, such as Danzig and Gdansk, Stetin and Szczecin, or Auschwitz and Oswiecim.
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Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Mapmakers must go crazy trying to keep up.
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Even in Ukraine, Kiev is changing to Kyiv.
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Persia became Iran in 1935; the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd became Saudi Arabia in 1932; Abyssinia turned into Ethiopia in 1941; Siam became Thailand in 1949.
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One of my favorites — In 1384, the Duchy of Brabant became Burgundian Netherlands; a century later, it became Habsburg Netherlands. Give another hundred years and it became Spanish Netherlands. In 1713, it became Austrian Netherlands followed in 1815 as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, only to turn a few years later into what we now know as Belgium. There is a bubbling separatist movement that may turn the whole thing back into two countries: Wallonia and Brabant, bringing full circle.
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Utah was once called Deseret. Kolkata was once Calcutta. St. Petersburg became Petrograd became Leningrad became St. Petersburg once again.
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I don’t think even Ovid could have kept up with all the shifting identities.
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Bechuanaland is Botswana; Basutoland is Lesotho; Ceylon is Sri Lanka; British Honduras is Belize; Dahomey is Benin; Madras is Tamil Nadu; Londonderry is Derry. Russia itself went through a cataclysmic shirt to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to the Russian Federation and back to good ol’ Russia.
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Joseph Stalin kept the commissars humming. The city of Tsaritsyn was renamed in his honor as Stalingrad. But genocidal dictators come and go, and now the city is Volgograd. Dushanbe in Tajikistan was changed to Stalinabad in 1929 to honor Uncle Joe, and was de-Stalinized later, returning it to Dushanbe. Of course, the man history knows as Stalin wasn’t born that way; he was originally Iosep Besarionis dze Jughashvili.
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I could go on listing name changes. Illyricum in the Roman Empire was Yugoslavia during the Cold War and has since shattered into various entities, forming and reforming now into Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. Give it time and the region will certainly transform again.
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The point of all this is that the world is dynamic. Our sense of it is static, but the reality is constantly shifting. When I hear politicians rail on about national sovereignty or diplomatic recognition for rogue states, I turn my head and blush for them. It is all just snakes in a bucket, over time, wriggling and writhing. New York was once New Amsterdam; Oslo used to be Christiania; Guangdong was first known to us as Canton.
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Nothing stays the same. It is always changing. Tempus fugit. Everything fugit.
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Even Regina, Saskatchewan was once a town named Pile of Bones.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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