Eurovision fans go to National Finals. Some of them jump on a plane to head round Europe because it’s fun. But what do you do when you are half way round the world, almost a day behind, and the Contest is calling across the sea to you?
ESC Insight’s Samantha Ross knew exactly what to do…
Ladies and gentlemen, I just did something a little crazy. I cashed in my few remaining days of annual leave from work, squished my essentials into a carry-on roller bag, and jetted off to the shores of Lake Konstanz for two days to attend the Swiss National Final. For most of ESC Insight’s Europe-based readers, that may seem a bit random, but not completely far-fetched. For me, though, a trip to Continental Europe means about ten hours in the air in each direction and a seven-hour time difference.
In my head, my trip seemed no stranger than my Dad having a two-day layover in Tel Aviv, or my mom being offered a weekend trip on some epic new vessel by a cruise line, just so she could talk it up to her clients all the better.
By making the trip to a National Final, no matter the country, I felt that it would somehow enhance my ability to understand the Eurovision process from a more holistic point of view. By witnessing one of the earliest events of the 2013 ESC cycle (because, let’s be honest here, I wasn’t going to be heading to Minsk), and following that song from cradle to grave, so to speak, I hoped to gain some sort of perspective on the event by the time Malmö came along. How do songs grow and change from the moment their name is pulled from the envelope to the last time it’s performed in competition in May? How does the atmosphere at a National Final differ from the Main Event? And where do I, as a Non-European Eurovision Fan Writer, fit in?
And part of me really wanted to drink a warm mug of glühwein with my friends and eat chocolate.
As I sat in the express train from Zurich Airport to Konstanz, Germany, sipping a cup of chai, I wondered if it was all really happening. My brain vaguely addled by a lack of sleep and a heavy dose of adrenaline, I watched the sun rise over a landscape of newly fallen snow, and it was just as idyllic as I had hoped it would be. I must have looked like a bit of a fool with my nose practically pressed up against the window of my second-class cabin, surrounded by people going about their daily commute, completely nonplussed by the overeager (and overtired) foreigner in their midst.
After disembarking, I pieced together the fragments of my broken German to grab a taxi and check into my hotel, the sort of compact and cozy spot where you realize how well your kneecaps fit into your eye sockets. Despite my desire to wander the city on my own for a little while, the clock in my head was still convinced it was four in the morning, and I promptly collapsed into an exhausted heap.
I woke up a few hours later to meet up with Ewan, and after the requisite picking-apart of the year’s National Final contenders and swapping of other general gossip, it felt like we had never left Azerbaijan.
Actually, I take that back. The presence of snow and the general lack of paranoia when we started talking about Armenia let us know that “yes, Toto, we weren’t in Baku anymore.”
Even though I was thousands of miles from my flat in Minnesota, I felt completely at home in this tiny hotel in this quaint little town in Germany. I felt plugged-in, energized, recharged, and reconnected.
We ventured out into town, passing by the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) and generally wandering the streets of Konstanz looking for everything and nothing. As a devoted follower of Samantha Brown and Anthony Bourdain, I wanted to be a traveler without being a tourist. I just wanted to soak the town in (and as the rain started to fall on Ewan and I, that wasn’t hard to do). Avoid the English-language menus… try to speak as much German as possible… pretend like I belonged there… not be the stereotypical American abroad.
As I thought about who I would ideally like to be as a traveler, it made me examine who I would ideally like to be as a member of the Eurovision community. While I am infinitely proud of where I’m from, I don’t like to call too much attention to it while I’m out of the country. In that same vein, I want to be seen by other Eurovision writers as “the girl on the Insight crew who knows her stuff and runs a good interview” and not “that American girl”. I realize that being one of the few journalists in the press centre from the US is an easy identifier (just as being the Australian, the Kazakh, or the Mexican would), but do people look at the small handful of geographical outsiders because of our nationalities, or because of our merits?
The next day, Ewan and I met up with Luke from ESCXtra, JP and Eric from Radio International, and a number of other Eurofans, all from nations that have competed at the ESC, but none, ironically, actually Swiss.
Maybe it was that we had all come in from other countries, maybe it was that I already knew over half of the group, but the fact that I was an American finally took a back seat to the National Final itself. As we stuffed ourselves with schnitzel and frites before the show, we got down to brass tacks and focused on the reason why we had all congregated on the Bodensee in the first place. We all had our favorites, our anticipated winners, the ones we feared would take the crown. Most expected a Heilsarmee, Melissa, and Jesse Ritch Top Three, but kept a candle lit for Carrousel. Almost all of us looked at Anthony Bighead in the same way that we saw the Babushki in Baku…three minutes of entertainment that very well might do more damage to the Contest than good, even though it was an act that we all hated to admit that we enjoyed.
We walked over the border to Switzerland in the evening drizzle, clutching flags from a half-dozen nations (and Ewan escorting Terry Vision away from the alcohol). After dropping our things off in the Press Lounge, we settled into our front-row seats at the Kreuzlingen Arena. The electricity wasn’t as palpable as it was during Eurovision proper; it felt more like the excitement before a curtain rises on a bit of live theatre. Luckily for us (and for my mother, watching dutifully from home), our group would be highly visible on camera as host Sven Epiney (or, as I liked to call him, ‘The Swiss Seacrest‘) introduced the acts, with Luke quietly translating for Ewan and me.
As the nine acts performed, Ewan and I quietly chattered back and forth, commenting on how well a song came across live vs. on camera (as the monitors were visible from where we were), or how well a choreography did an entry justice. The two of us often banter about National Final entries via Facebook or Twitter, but for the first time I realized that the performers could probably actually hear me if I spoke too loudly.
This reminded me of an epiphany that I had during my first Eurovision, in Düsseldorf. When you watch a performance on television, all you see is the three minutes’ worth of performance, and maybe a few reaction shots as the points come in. We often forget the humanity of the artists, and the personal risks that they take when they take the stage. In those last seconds before performing, Anthony Bighead seemed comically cocky, Jesse Ritch seemed cool and collected, and Chiara Dubey looked jittery and terrified, as if she couldn’t breathe until the final note had been sung, and that a wayward feather could knock her over.
When Heilsarmee took the stage, they seemed completely comfortable. They were a band of trusted friends and comrades-in-arms, delivering a message that they believed in, and (in their minds) supported by a power greater than themselves. In a way, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them win. We were all happily shocked, however, to see Carrousel come in as runners-up, since songs from the French broadcaster often do unjustly poorly, due to local viewing figures.
After the final credits rolled, our press passes allowed us to get on stage to speak to the performers, Sven, and anyone else the journalists could sweep up in the heat of the moment (in Insight’s case, the Swedish Ambassador to Switzerland). Even though I have interviewed Eurovision performers for two years, being able to actually climb on stage and engage in an absolute free-for-all for interviews made the experience so much more…real.
In the Press Centre at Eurovision, interviews are carefully arranged by a dutiful, hard-working set of volunteers, and getting on stage is an honor strictly reserved for Delegations and Crew members (just ask Jimmy Jump). The relaxed, almost lackadaisical approach at the National Final level stood in refreshing contrast to the highly choreographed Eurovision experience, and I loved it.
After bidding a fond farewell to our friends, Ewan and I walked back to our hotel north of the Rhine, the brisk air keeping me awake just as much as my confused Circadian Rhythm. I only had about five hours before I had to catch my train back to Zurich Airport, so I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to get much sleep. I figured out how to order a cab for 6:45, bid my friend and editor a fond farewell, hastily threw my stuff into my suitcase, and took a brief catnap before my ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles‘ lifestyle (this time, in reverse) took a hold of me once more. In twelve hours, my brother would be picking me up from Newark Airport, where I’d recuperate from the pounding that jetlag had exacted upon my brain while surrounded by family during the last night of Hanukkah.
My laminated press pass from “Die Entscheidungs Show” is now hanging on my bedroom mirror, in a place of honor next to my passes from Düsseldorf and Baku. In only a few months, they will be joined by a similar piece from Malmö. I’m looking at it as I’m writing this article, a piece of Swiss chocolate on the nightstand next to me. Did it all actually happen? Any changes to Heilsarmee’s ‘You and Me‘ are still to be seen, but the experience that I had in Konstanz and Kreuzlingen will remain permanent and solid in my memory.
I feel like I understand the Eurovision Process more fully now that I’ve seen a National Final, and I feel so deeply fortunate to have been able to experience it.