Eurovision 2013: All Of Europe Under One Roof

eurovision
Alex Robertson Textor

Launched in 1956, Eurovision is a Europe-wide music competition held every May under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Participating countries select their representative songs over the course of the preceding winter and spring. Some countries – like Sweden – make their selections via televised heats held over several consecutive weeks. Others – like the U.K. (this year, at least) – make their selections by internal committee.

Eurovision is a major event in Europe, with a remarkable 125 million viewers.

Nowadays, Eurovision lasts for almost an entire week. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are now so many participating countries – 39 this year; even more in recent years – that two semi-finals are required to winnow down contestants to a manageable tally for the grand final. After semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday, this year’s final will be held later today in Malmö, Sweden. (Sweden won Eurovision last year, and with its win came the right to host this year’s contest.)Eurovision is not generally considered to be a showcase for serious music, and few global stars emerge from it. One very notable exception is ABBA, who turned their 1974 win with “Waterloo” into enormous international success. In lieu of musical seriousness, the event unleashes a kind low-impact skirmish of muted patriotisms and a massive gay following.

For many countries, participation in Eurovision is a rite of passage, a sign of progress. An Israeli friend once told me that in the late 1970s her family would dress up to watch Eurovision in their living room. This symbolic appeal of Eurovision remains especially strong in some Eastern European countries and the Caucasus today.

All members of the European Broadcasting Union can participate in Eurovision. This fact explains Israel‘s participation. Other EBU members beyond the borders of Europe include Morocco (who participated just once, in 1980) and several countries that have never participated: Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. True Eurovision nerds will tell you that Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Liechtenstein have all submitted applications for EBU membership.

So right, tonight. The odds have Denmark‘s Emmelie de Forest, Norway‘s Margaret Berger (with likely the strongest straight-up pop song, a little piece of driven magic titled “I Feed You My Love”), Ukraine‘s Zlata Ognevich, Azerbaijan‘s Farid Mammadov and Russia‘s Dina Garipova at the top of the pile.

In addition to these, Hungary, Romania and Greece have emerged as fan favorites. ByeAlex, the Hungarian entrant, sings a lush, quietly earnest song called “Kedvesem.” The singer looks like a quiet, earnest Mission District hipster; he distinguished himself in the press conference for the second semi-final winners on Thursday night by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. Romania’s entry, sung by a countertenor opera singer named Cezar, is an instant Eurovision dance classic with a particularly over-the-top choreography. The Greek entry, by Koza Mostra featuring rebetiko singer Agathonas Iakovidis, combines folk, punk and rebetiko themes.

For those who follow Eurovision obsessively, the event itself is a kind of quasi-religious experience. The line between fandom and evangelism is imprecise for this tribe, many of whom attend Eurovision regularly. This week in Malmö, the Eurovision tribe is everywhere, sharing the gospel of playful but somehow meaningful pop music. The photo above, taken yesterday, gets at some of the gospel’s magic. It’s simple and interpersonal. Koza Mostra’s lead singer, Elias Kozas, has swapped flags with a German Eurovision fan. No negotiations. No conflict. No international frustrations. Just a snapshot of a moment within which flags don’t matter much.

Travel And The Azerbaijani Unibrow

The unibrow is the face of travel.

Let me explain. I recently took a trip to Azerbaijan. I strolled the streets of Baku, which are flanked by plus-sized Beaux Arts palaces, the ground floors of which usually house a designer shop. I ate enough grilled meat to keep a slaughterhouse in business. And I sat in smoky bars nursing Turkish beer. It was all very nice. But what struck me the most about the country was the unibrow. I first saw it on Rashid, a 30-year-old computer programmer I met through a friend. It was like a black cat had rested its tale across his forehead. Furry and thick and stretching from temple to temple, his unibrow was the most prominent aspect of his round face.

The unibrow (or monobrow), which scientifically is called a synophrys, is an embarrassment in modern, Western society and culture. People get made fun of, laughed and pointed at. It’s even worse for women, who have to landscape their brows on a regular basis. People will go through great labor to ensure they have not one but two eye brows.

But in other parts of the world, things are different.I cleared my throat and broached the subject with Rashid.

It turned out, Rashid was proud of his unibrow. “It’s a symbol of bravery and strength,” he said. Rashid explained that in Azeri culture, the unibrow is a traditional look, one that unfortunately is fading away.

“And for women, it is a symbol of virginity and purity,” he told me. “Women will have this unibrow, as you call it, until they are married. When she comes out for the wedding ceremony, it will be the first time she is without it.”

I spent the next few days unibrow spotting. I noticed it on people walking down the street. I noticed it on waiters. I even saw a mannequin that had a unibrow drawn into its forehead with a black marker, an attempt to give it some local flavor, I guess.

And so what does this have to do with travel? Everything. That central, oft-pondered question – why do we travel? What inspires us to get off the couch, put one foot in front of the other, lock our front doors, and go? – can be answered thanks to the unibrow.

Finding the “exotic,” a subjective and problematic term, is becoming harder and harder these days. The world is coalescing into one giant miasma of sameness – at least in some ways. I went to Belarus on a magazine assignment. The goal? To drench myself in an anachronistic post-communist culture that I thought had faded away in other places decades ago. Minsk, the capital, seemed frozen somewhere in 1959. You can stand on the corner of Marx and Engels Streets. You can sit in the shadow of a gargantuan Lenin statue. You can convince yourself that the KGB is following you (because they probably are) and you can try to spot the mustached dictator running the place. But the people I met in Minsk were as clued into things as anywhere else in the world. I heard M.I.A. and Radiohead songs in bars. I talked about American foreign policy with people in cafes. And I noticed a lack of bad teeth and mullets. Belarus, it turns out, is not just babushkas and bread lines.

But they had their own cultural signifiers and that’s what I dove into while I was there – just as I did in Azerbaijan. The unibrow is a proud local tradition and one that physically separates us. It shows the gulf between me and Rashid. And that’s a good thing. It reminds me of why I travel: to see those differences and to relish in them. And while the unibrow stands out, there are other variations on the theme of hair that intrigue me. When I’m traveling I always brake for a mullet (and especially the holy grail: the mullet/mustache combo).

What the unibrow (or the mullet, for that matter) becomes is not just a symbol of otherness or travel or a resistance to the homogenization of that steamroller known as 21st-century globalization; it is a symbol of happiness.

[Unibrow photos by David Farley]

Baku To The Future: The Empty Capital Of Azerbaijan Really Wants You To Visit

In September 2010, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, a plus-sized Azerbaijani flag was raised on a very tall flagpole. With an international audience looking on, Azerbaijani officials proudly made a proclamation: that in Baku, the capital of the country, the world’s largest flagpole at 531 feet now stood, thus besting South Korea and Turkmenistan. Sadly, the odd global flagpole war was not over: a year later, in Tajikistan a 541-foot pole went up and Azerbaijan had to move on to other things.

And that they did. There’s a lot more rising in Baku these days than flagpoles. The city is going through its second oil boom in a century and a half and is suddenly flush with cash. And lots of it. I spent a few days here recently rendezvousing with a friend and traversing a country that few people seem to know exists.

Friends and family members, people I meet at cocktail parties, always ask the same question: where are you going next? Azerbaijan, I’d say in the run-up to my trip here. I received a lot of blank stares in return or sometimes an “Azerbai what?” When I called my cell phone company to get on an international roaming plan, the woman with the southern accent on the other end of the line asked me where I was headed. Her response to hearing Azerbaijan was this: “Now is that in the Paris, France area?”Azerbaijan is in an odd geographical position, wedged between Iran to the south and Russia to the north, it’s a bridge between east and west, Europe and the Middle East. It’s a predominantly Muslim culture but one where its citizens are prone to pounding vodka from time to time. I didn’t bother to tell the woman at my phone company this info. But I could have told her about the rapid changes that are going on here: that in the last year and a half six luxury hotels have opened up. I’m staying at one of them: the Four Seasons. And the only reason I can afford to is because it’s, well, affordable. In fact, the most affordable in the hotel company’s portfolio.

The reason: Baku looks like a place one would want to go. There’s a walled medieval town in the center and block-long Parisian-like buildings outside the walls where the streets are flanked by palm trees and designer shops. There’s a long handsomely designed and landscaped beachside promenade called Bulvar. Yet, no one is really coming to Baku yet. They poured in for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest but that was it. Getting a visa is difficult. And the price of things, save for the hotels where there is a lot of supply but no demand, is high, on par with Western Europe.

Baku is no stranger to sudden surges of wealth. In the second half o the 19th century, black gold was discovered. People rushed in from all over the place, including the London-based Rothschild family as well as the Nobel brothers from Sweden, who made so much money on oil here that said money is still partly funding the annual prizes that are given out under the Nobel name. The oil barons (both foreign and Azeri) built huge palaces just outside the old city walls. In 1920, the Soviets took over the country and the oil barons fled. The oil industry then fell into disrepair.

And then, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was back. After a short skirmish with its neighbor and sworn enemy, Armenia, the country began selling the rights to suck up its oil. In 2006 it opened up a pipeline that goes through neighboring Georgia to Turkey. As a result, according to a New York Times article, from 2006 to 2008, Azerbaijan had the fastest growing economy in the world, at an astounding 28 percent (For comparison’s sake, the United States’ economy during that time grew about 2.2 percent).

If Paris and Dubai had a lovechild it would certainly be Baku. In addition to the Beaux Arts buildings that were a product of the last oil boom, the Baku skyline is now rife with color and avant-garde design: The Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center looks like a spaceship covered with a humungous billowy blanket and is the first building to really wow me in a very long time; then there are the Flame Towers (pictured), a reference to the country’s fire-loving Zoroastrian past: these three tongue-shaped towers dominate the skyline at night by broadcasting through 10,000 L.E.D.s images of flames (starting in June, one of the towers will be a Fairmont hotel). There’s also a Trump building that looks like it was plucked from the Abu Dhabi skyline and a 1,000-foot TV tower, the tallest structure in the country.

But not for long. An Azeri gazillionaire is building a few manmade islands in the Caspian that will apparently be home to the world’s tallest building. That is, until a country like Tajikistan builds one tall a year later.

The leader of this nation is Ilyam Aliyev, who may be president for some time. Voters in a 2009 referendum decided by an apparent 92 percent of the vote to scrap presidential term limits. Photos of President Aliyev’s father, Heydar, who was president before him, are ubiquitous: his face graces large billboards in and around Baku and well as throughout the countryside, giving the impression that “dear leader,” alive or dead, is always on the watch.

During the time I was here I was often asked what I thought of Azerbaijan, in general, and Baku, in particular. I didn’t really know what to think of it, at first. It seemed Baku had changed so much and so rapidly that there were societal and cultural aspects that haven’t caught up. The nightlife, for example, was forgettable, even though Lonely Planet recently proclaimed it to be one of the best spots on the planet to party (note to LP: did any of you actually come here?).

If they let me back in to Azerbaijan (don’t forget that getting a visa is a pain), I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the country has developed in a few years. By that time, the famous flagpole might have dropped to fifth or sixth tallest in the world. And maybe I’ll see a few tourists here. Enough, anyway, that the only place I’ll be able to stay is a hostel.

[Photo by David Farley]

Odd Travel Jobs: The Taxidermied Wolf Revealer Of Azerbaijan

I first encountered Juma outside the castle in the Azerbaijani town of Sheki, a town of 60,000 people about a four-hour drive from the capital, Baku. Juma had planted himself just outside the castle gates. I didn’t realize it at the time but he was waiting for me. He was sitting on the ground, his hands resting on a 3-foot-high object that was covered by a Persian rug.

Few tourists seem to make the trek to Sheki. But for those who do come, there are a few highlights: to escape the bright lights of Baku, to sample the unique halva they make here, or to just get a bucolic feel for what this country can offer. And, as I officially did about 15 minutes later, they might also meet Juma a local septuagenarian. I emerged back into the sunlight from a drab, stodgy museum that had been displaying historic Azerbaijani costumes on fashion mannequins and there he was waiting for me again, the carpeted object in front of him. I was, it seemed, the only tourist in town and he was intent on showing me what he was hiding underneath the rug.

And then, like some kind of magician, he pulled off the carpet to reveal … a crudely taxidermied wolf. As Juma then told me, this was his job – his very odd job.

I pulled a few crumpled Azerbaijani notes out of my pocket, handed them to Juma, and commenced asking questions.David Farley: What’s your friend’s name?
Juma: Ramo. He is a male.

DF: What kind of beast is this?
Juma: It’s a wolf. Just the type of wolf one finds in these hills around Sheki.

DF: Did you do the taxidermy yourself?
Juma: I did. It’s good, right?

DF: [Pause]
Juma: Watch this! [Underneath Ramo's chest, Juma grabs two wires, touches them together and the wolf's eyes flicker with light.]

DF: Impressive. Is that your equivalent of the money shot?
Juma: [Pause] I do not understand this question.

DF: Never mind. So what do you feed him?
Juma: I had him on a steady diet of meat. This is what wolves like. Even neighbors would come by and give him meat.

DF: No, what do you feed him now?
Juma: Now? [Pauses, looks upward.] Mostly coins [laughs wildly].

DF: Weren’t you ever afraid he was going to attack you?
Juma: No, because I kept him in a cage the whole time.

DF: How long have you been doing this?
Juma: Several decades. I’ve had Ramo since I was 12 years old. Look at this. [Juma pulls out a creased and folded up piece of paper and shows it to me]. It is a letter from the Soviet minister of business. Back during the Soviet occupation it was illegal to start your own business. But I did anyway, by going around with Ramo like I am now. And, instead of getting in trouble, I got this letter thanking me for doing this.

DF: Is that fur hat you’re wearing made from Ramo’s stomach?
Juma: No, it’s from a fox.

DF: Did you like Ramo better in life or in death?
Juma: You haven’t given me enough money for me to answer a question like that.

[Photo by David Farley]

The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

caucasus and central asia

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]