The title of this popular song by Alexander Igoryevich Rybak (b. 1986) makes us all feel nostalgic, thinking of a time long gone by, or just half a year ago, before the Corona pandemic. I shall use Rybak’s artistic work to reflect on people’s life, indeed those of refugees and immigrants, and all of us. In his song, the artist goes on saying, “She was mine and we were sweethearts. That was then, but it’s true.” And now, he only has the memories, the stories, and the dreams, like a fairytale. She could make him the saddest person on earth, but that he has forgotten, instead he remembers that she was the one who made him the happiest person on earth. If she comes back, he would be there for her, and she for him, just in the blink of an eye. That he knows, yes, in his dreams, his fantasy and fairytale, and maybe reality, too.

When we think of the time before corona, perhaps we make things better than they actually were, and perhaps, we forget to see all the good things we after all have around us even now. And we can and must dream of what will happen in the future, all the good things we can be part of then, after corona. Of course, we will build on the past and the present, and we have a chance to do something new and different. That dream we must never lose, and that is the dream of all human beings, indeed of immigrants and refugees. “The girl I knew” is all of this.

Alexander Rybak came to Oslo, Norway, as a toddler from Belarus, USSR, with his parents, violinist Igor Rybak and music journalist and piano teacher Natalia Rybak, nèe Gurina. He grew up as an only child, meeting his half-sister in Minsk 17 years later. For him, it was four hours of daily practice on violin, piano and singing throughout his school-age years, but he has no negative memories of that, like some other children sometimes have. He became a virtuoso on violin, a songwriter, singer and actor, with success in the Eurovision Song Contest and much more in Norway, Sweden, Ukraine, West and East Europe, West Asia, and beyond, including Pakistan, indeed Pakistani-Norwegians coming back on holiday.

He has become good at making up fairy tales in his artistic heart and mind, about Belarus and more, including the starlit sky in cloudy weather over the Nesodden fjord and Oslo. He has come to understand, too, that he is often telling stories which are common to all human beings, during the current pandemic or at other times—and that is indeed important to do. “That’s How You Write a Song” was the title of a song he wrote a few years ago.

Let my poetic article today be a tribute to Alexander Rybak, an immigrant who has made Norway greater, an artist whose words and sounds have “No Boundaries”, which was the title of his second album in 2010, after his successful debut album named, “Fairytales”, in 2009.

My article today is also tribute to all immigrants and refugees, people who have had to, or have chosen to leave their homeland to seek a better life somewhere else; for many, it was a question of getting away from an unbearable life and building a better one for the children. All travellers carry with them stories and memories—without which they cannot live. They keep them in their heart, handing them over to spouse, children, grandchildren, friends and strangers, and fellow artists and audiences. It is not only the new opportunities that are important, it is also the luggage that immigrants carry with them—be it knowledge, skills, artistic minds, or just themselves, the way they are and become in exchange situations with locals and newcomers in the new land.

After the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, a young woman, Ilonka Bartok Kopsland, a renowned pianist, found refuge in Bergen, Norway; and Kopsland became her adopted surname from her Norwegian husband. When I was young, she had become a radio personality, talking about music and playing the piano on NRK state broadcasting, indeed the programme known as “Lunch Time Break” (in Norwegian, Middagsstunden). The important thing about it was her cheerful voice and laughter. She had learnt Norwegian and was probably quite good at it, but I must admit I never quite understood more than half of what she said. Nevermind, the atmosphere and joy made up for that, along with the music. It all came from the heart, “from the inside”, as Alexander Rybak said about communication recently, “not all around it”.

Alexander Rybak and Ilonka Bartok have contributed to making their new homeland a better and more open land with what they carried with them, indeed the uniqueness and universality in their personalities. I believe that an artistic mind, and just the natural beauty of any person’s heart, can teach us new things that we would not have known if the immigrants had not come, if we had not exchanged fairy tales and stories, dreams and ideas.

I hope that you and I remember all the good things before corona forced us to keep distance, not hug one another, be careful and reserved, well, do all what we should do for the time being—and we know the things are temporary and will not last forever.

Different then for many immigrants and refugees, who have had to make up fairy tales and stories and make them sound and feel true and real; Alexander Rybak had to do that. I too, “I kind of liked the girl I knew”. Let her be a symbol for our memories and stories—and what gives life meaning today and tomorrow, after corona in the village or town we live, or for refugees and immigrants, in their new lands. After all, Alexander and Ilonka, teach us that it is the people around us that make our lives—fairytales, reality, and the rest, as we build a better world—together.