"Lee-o-nard Co-hen" was how Tomasz pronounced the name. In 2009 after a Budapest fitness class, Tomasz and I got to talking about his English, how he'd become so conversant. He answered with one word – or rather that one name. As a young man, he'd immersed himself in Cohen's music and poetry and, in the process, had absorbed the language.

He especially loved the writing in Cohen's "Hallelujah": in an interview with Atlantic magazine, Cohen described the song: "This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled… But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by ‘Hallelujah'."

With my roots in Montreal, Canada, temporarily living in Budapest, I had always wanted to see this legendary singer, this Canadian icon from my home-town, but never had the chance. Someone described Cohen's art as bringing a Zen-like balance between beauty and despair; I despaired of ever experiencing in real life Cohen's beauty.

A singer/songwriter/poet/author/musician who transcends normal categorisation: troubadour, cabaret, blues, prophetic hymnals, whose gravelly baritone only deepened with age. And how irresistible his irony, and self-deprecating humour: "Only in Canada could a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year."

Cohen's name was much in the air in 2009. As my husband and I travelled about Europe, chance encounters showed how Canada's prodigal son was embraced worldwide: A waiter in Scottish Glencoe ignored other customers, so determined was he to return to our table with another favourite Cohen lyric. In Bratislava, an interpreter rejoiced when he learned my nationality and recited "Dance Me to the End of Love". When one day in Vienna I noticed tickets on sale for Cohen's World Tour, I hinted rather broadly to my husband that seeing Cohen in our home-away-from-home, Budapest, on my birthday eve, would be the perfect gift, memorable for all my birthdays to come.

"You spoiled my surprise," he said, agreeing that seeing Cohen perform in Budapest, so far from home, would be even better than in Vienna or Prague, since Budapest sparkled to us as the jewel in the Danube's royal crown.

Tomasz coincidentally was also going to the concert – to be held at the Papp László Budapest Sportaréna. A sports arena? Not the most evocative or intimate of settings, I mused, and who anyway was László Papp.

I didn't muse for long. Tomasz recounted the life story of this world-class Hungarian boxer from Budapest, whom he called "Laci", who became the first boxer in Olympic history to win three successive gold medals. In fact, in 13 Olympic fights, 12 were won without losing a single round. After his Olympic triumphs, Papp was rising fast professionally but had to fight in Vienna, because at that time communist Hungary did not allow professional boxing.

Then, just when Papp had signed up for a world title bout, he was denied an exit visa, bringing an abrupt painful end to his professional hopes. Papp remains one of history's few boxers to retire undefeated in the ring. Tomasz described Laci rising from the ashes to begin anew, working successfully as a national coach, the teams he coached bringing fame and glory to his native Budapest. The sports arena that bears his name, constructed when the old one burned down, was opened in 2003, a few months before he died.

Laci Papp the fighter was a survivor, not dissimilar to Leonard Cohen who, like a phoenix, himself rose from the ashes. In 2004 Cohen learned that his finances had been wiped out by his manager of 17 years. In addition to embezzling over USD 5 million, the manager had sold many of Cohen's publishing rights. The manager would eventually be convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Cohen, aged 70, was broke. The financial loss meant he'd lost savings from a career spanning over 40 years. Devastated, so late in his life, after not touring for more than 15 years, Cohen launched himself upon the world stage. As he put it in an interview with The New York Times "… being forced to go back on the road to repair the fortunes of my family and myself was a most fortunate happenstance because I was able to connect… with living musicians. And I think it warmed some part of my heart that had taken on a chill."

The tour included London's O2 stadium. Cohen, then 73, reminisced to his audience: "It's been a long time since I stood on a stage in London… I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I've taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin… [Cohen suffered from leukaemia] I've also studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions. But cheerfulness kept breaking through."

I suppose the betrayal by his manager must have touched Cohen to his core. On top of the financial loss was this treachery. In the circumstances, one can imagine him now placing an even higher value upon the trusted friends and colleagues he'd wisely relied upon over the years.

A lengthy world tour so late in life must have been terribly challenging – physically, emotionally and artistically. Talk about personal resilience: pick yourself up when you've been knocked down, dust yourself off, get back into the ring. A survivor? No; rather, a glorious warrior. And no bitterness – or if so, a bitter sweetness, as audiences and reviewers were ecstatic with his performances. I can picture Laci Papp the Budapest fighter smiling down from Olympian heights when Cohen sang "… I'm Your Man… If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you… "

The transformation of betrayal and loss to a renaissance of artistry. As Cohen wrote in "Anthem," "There is a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in." His connection with his admirers clearly energised him. Indeed, the tremendous response he received worldwide must have been heartening to him, and as the tour continued into its second year he was hailed as one of the century's greatest musical giants. In the ensuing five years Cohen performed worldwide over 400 shows and produced three studio albums.

The BIG NIGHT in Budapest. We took the subway to the Papp László Budapest Sportaréna, mingling with lots of folks waiting for the train. Smiles, chit-chat. Hungarian sprinkled with English. I caught the eye of a middle-aged couple who were discussing Leonard. That was the first sense I had that Leonard's appeal here in Budapest was not only to the grey-haired but to all ages. The arena was packed to its 12,500 capacity, the atmosphere abuzz with anticipation. One commentator suggested "… If you absolutely have to know, everybody was there, from former prime ministers to top Hungarian performers."

It was Cohen's first visit to Budapest. At 74, a small, lean, wiry, elderly man – with a huge presence. A dark suit, his trademark fedora pulled down low over his eyes, his backup musicians dressed in black.

"We don't know when we will pass this way again, so we're going to give you everything we've got." And he did. He was on stage for over three hours, playing six encores to the rapturous crowd. Aged but not fragile. Full of dynamic energy. This small wiry man through his music towered like a giant. A giant in his Tower of Song.

His musicians were talented in their own right, like his songwriter collaborator, Sharon Robinson (singing "Boogie Street"). There was the way that Cohen introduced his crew and addressed them during the evening, bowing to them, standing back so they could fill the limelight.

The familiar themes Cohen explores were all there, and with his extraordinary skill, sometimes several themes combined within a single song: Love and War//Myth and Magic//Sin and Atonement//Death and Destruction//Peace and Hope//Anguish and Despair//Fragility and Strength// Future and Past//Love and Longing//Democracy.

"Dance Me to The End of Love," which he started the show with, created magic from the very start. The line about the "… burning violin" was especially resonant here in Budapest with its splendid history of violin virtuosity. "The Gypsy Wife" had a similar impact. "Waiting for The Miracle," "The Partisan," "Suzanne," "First We Take Manhattan" – so many favourites, so many moods from evocative to despairing, to ironic, to loving. In all instances, the quality of a master poet who had crafted these songs perhaps years ago but had now sculpted them finely.

His performance is theatre – with no gimmicks, just precise, careful performance. At the end, after an hour of encores, Cohen closed the show. "Thank you for keeping these songs alive, all these years." He said he might not pass this way again, so he wishes us well, and wishes that we have friends and loved ones around us. Or, if we are alone, that we have blessings come to us in our solitude.

One Budapest reviewer (Jozing Antal) the next day described Cohen as a demigod, suggesting that his essence lies in being able to filter the world, to separate what is important… then to process it through music and poetry… during songs such as "Who By Fire" and "The Gypsy Wife", the quiet so intense one could hear the buzz of a fly.

It is not only in places of worship where music and song connect people: even in a space as large and cold as a sports arena there can be warmth and intimacy. In the hushed moments at the end of a song there was this sense of connectedness, not only with the performer but with one another, the warmth of community in sharing this magical night.

Waiting for the metro home from the stadium, seeing all the smiling glowing faces, yes, glowing. A feeling of sparkling happiness, of what we had experienced together. I thanked my husband for having introduced me to Leonard Cohen so many years before and he thanked me for bringing Dylan to him.

On the morning after the concert, one Hungarian newspaper described the event as "the concert of the year". Cohen leapt (as only a 74-year-old might leap) to number one on Hungarian music charts.

A fan from Finland wrote, "Thank you Mister Leonard Cohen! Thank you for the last night on [sic] Budapest! This … was incredible fantastic… as when I first saw the sea!!!"

On the morning after his death, November 7, 2016, I wandered aimlessly through the streets of Dublin where we then lived. To distract myself I went into a shop, half trying to block out Leonard's songs ringing in my ears. In a small upstairs shop what should I hear but Cohen's music. The owner said she was devastated by news of his death, kept on continuous play his song collection for herself and her customers, because everyone wanted to talk about him. She recalled an outdoor concert at Lissadell House, County Sligo, on Ireland's west coast, where he performed in the soft Irish mist, a short distance from Yeats' gravesite.

Before the concert, knowing Cohen's affection for Yeats, Lissadell's owner, Edward Walsh, had asked the tour organisers if Cohen would consider opening a Yeats exhibition. He was told Mr. Cohen does not do that sort of thing. Then, following the performance, Walsh was contacted directly by Cohen's manager. "Mr. Cohen would be honoured if he could be permitted to open the exhibition." Walsh's lasting impression of Cohen: "No airs, no arrogance, just a desire to please his ‘friends', that's how he referred to his fans… just sublime, a beacon of light. He lifted everyone's spirits. Meeting him was the same."

Days after Cohen's death, Irish journalist Elleen Battersby, who had been at the Lissadell concert, wrote: "… His songs are about being alive; trying to live, love and arrive at some understanding of it all. He loved beauty and he understood pain, his songs both ease and console. The rainbow merely added to the magic."

Evidently Budapest continues to hold Cohen dear: in 2018 the city hosted the 11th World Leonard Cohen Festival. This was the first of these biennial events to be held after his death. His custom had been to mark the festival with a personal greeting. As this was no longer possible, the Budapest organiser, Éva Martonyi, quoted a message Cohen had sent on the occasion of his 80th birthday:

"Dear Friends
Thank you for the countless times
you have lifted my spirit.
Thank you for the comfort and
the encouragement.
Love and Blessings,
Leonard"

Dear Budapest, I thank you for sharing this experience with me.


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