Eternal sunset of an awesome time

Osby Lake

At 56° latitude, Älmhult is by far the northernmost place I’ve lived, so this is my first time experiencing the endless days and bright nights of a northern summer. The solstice is still three weeks away, but already the sun is traveling in wide circles across the sky, only dipping below the horizon for a scant few hours at night. Even at one in the morning, a little light remains as twilight gives nightfall a miss and goes straight on into sunrise. I’ve written before about the strong ties between the darkness and Scandinavian culture, and the long days of summer are no less influential.

With so many hours of daylight, flowers shoot up from the ground like rockets, and Swedes who huddled around their hearths all winter take to the streets, parks and lakes at all hours of the day and night. Conversations take on a hint of manic joy, and you never feel like sleeping. Ever. The sunsets last absolutely forever, as the sun bobs orange for hours in its ice cream sky, sinking so slowly that it’s like being frozen in time. If you’re listening to music, this glorious scene turns every song into a moment of perfect, instant nostalgia. I’ve been listening to Nick Drake a lot the past few days, as his dreamy strumming and gentle voice feel tailor-made for the long twilight of the northern sky.

 

It’s no coincidence that there are a staggering number of public Swedish holidays this month. Almost every other weekend has an extra day or two tacked on, and carpe diem becomes something of an art form. Going by how jam-packed grocery and beer stores were this weekend, I’m guessing everyone in Älmhult was either hosting or attending a barbecue. Scott and I had the good fortune to be invited to two of these get-togethers, where we were once again enchanted by the warmth and openness of our new Swedish friends.

The atmosphere at these gatherings was an interesting mix of peaceful bliss and frenetic good cheer. Relaxing under the trees gave way to a silly game of badminton using a fishing net in lieu of a racket. Gazing out over Osby lake gave way to rounds of snaps and drinking songs, each merrier than the last. These songs, called snapsvisor, are a proud Swedish tradition and the hallmarks of a truly successful party. Needless to say, I was so wrapped up in researching this post that I failed to document the moment. Luckily, YouTube has plenty of footage of snapsvisor, and they go a little something like this:

In the endless sunset, we played and laughed long into the night, never noticing the lateness of the hour. Only at midnight did the sun retreat far enough to warrant lighting torches on the beach, turning each reveler into a silhouette against the sparkling lake. And even as we rode home, the night sky remained a rich blue, heralding the dawn that would send us to sleep by the light of a golden sunrise.

Sweden Lake Sunset

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The Eurovision final was so much better than I could have imagined

Conchita Wurst

Saturday’s Eurovision final in Copenhagen was a delightful, thrilling, and ultimately moving experience for viewers across Europe and especially those of us lucky enough to be in the city. Scott and I were there with my parents, and while our luck wasn’t quite good enough to get us into the live show, the giddy, dizzy excitement of fans milling in the streets and gathered at free outdoor concerts made Eurovision one of the most exhilarating city-wide parties I’ve experienced in a long time.

Eurovision party people

The open-air warmup shows featured musical acts of all kinds, and as we walked through squares and across canals, the rambunctious buzz of swing music was overtaken by strains of K-Pop-inspired karaoke, which in turn faded as we waded into mellow waves of electric folk. This year’s Eurovision organizers paid homage to the illustrious history of the event, and walking from stage to stage, I heard more renditions of “Waterloo” in one afternoon than I had in all my years put together.

Stages everywhere2

The contest finals were held in a giant empty factory on an island that is now (and possibly forever) christened “Eurovision Island”. It was only open to ticket holders, but we got a pretty good look at it from a boat that took us out into the harbor. My photo of the venue is pretty blurry, because I didn’t bring my good camera with me out on the water. This decision proved both extremely foolish in light of all the canalside action I witnessed, and extremely wise in light of the sudden and total downpour that left everyone on the boat drenched and shivering.

BigOldWarehouse

Despite the cold, wet weather, it seemed like the whole city was out in the streets. Of course, the combination of large crowds and international media presence brought the dirtbags out of the woodwork as well. During afternoon coffee, we were startled by the sound of stomping boots as fifty-odd masked militants tore down Strøget dragging smoke canisters and shouting slogans. They were a right-wing fundamentalist group protesting religious diversity in Denmark, as we discovered later when we unwittingly walked into the vicinity their standoff against the police. At first, we weren’t sure what was happening as dozens of vans packed with officers in riot gear careened past us with sirens howling. A helicopter hovered right over our heads and every street was blockaded by officials who were not in the mood to talk about what was going on. It was unsettling, especially when we heard the crack of small arms fire a few blocks away.

Copenhagen_Riot_Police

It was a dramatic scene in which there were thankfully no casualties, and which was oddly given barely any mention in the news the next day. We eventually made it out of the chaos and were so relieved to be back in our warm, dry hotel that we settled into the bar to watch the show rather than venture back out. Little did we know that the collision of tolerance and bigotry that we’d witnessed that afternoon would prove to be a key theme in the narrative of the Eurovision finale itself.

The highlight of the evening was the sweeping victory of Austria’s Conchita Wurst for her performance of “Rise Like A Phoenix”. The story of how this champion rose to win it all is fascinating and moving: Conchita, affectionately nicknamed “Queen of Europe”, is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth, a television personality and former boy band member. Her selection as Austria’s Eurovision delegate was contentious and triggered a deluge of condemnation from bigots near and far.

ConchitaWINS1

Both despite and in light of the controversy, support for Conchita grew as she moved through the semi-final rounds winning new fans at every turn. In the end, she earned high votes, not only from viewers, but also from juries in a majority of countries. As the results came in, her laughter and tears were lovely to behold, and her acceptance speech perfectly summed up the power and significance of the moment: “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom.”

That future moves a little closer whenever a cultural majority speaks out in support of the freedom to be different and to be one’s self. That for me, much more than any specific reading of what Conchita represents, is what made this television moment so remarkable. “First they laughed,” said BBC presenter and Eurovision commentator Graham Norton with a catch in his voice, “and then she just broke people’s hearts.”

Despite its famously lavish and kitschy musical performances, sophisticated camp is surprisingly rare at Eurovision. After the initial surprise of seeing Conchita appear in her beard and glimmering gown, I was stunned by the drama and emotion of her sighing, soaring voice, her statuesque grace and her sparkling stage presence. Her victory encore was nothing short of magical, and I had shivers as I watched her eyes shine in the spotlight.

Queen Conchita’s performance and story left everything else looking just a little dim in comparison, but a handful of other European countries came through with the ridiculousness I’d so eagerly anticipated. Poland, for example, gave us this tremendously amusing number:

According to a group of Danish and Azerbaijani fans who joined us to watch the show, this song is satirical in nature with lyrics that lampshade the objectification of women. Unfortunately, any feminist nuances were lost in translation for anyone who didn’t speak Polish, so the performance may not have had its intended effect.

Several countries made valiant attempts to out-diva Queen Conchita, and while no one was able to touch her, Ukraine’s Maria Yaremchuk made a very fine showing:

The unrest in Maria’s home country added a palpable layer of subtext to the event, and each time a vote for Ukraine was announced, the cheering of the crowd escalated into a frenzy. On the other hand, Russia’s Eurovision delegates bore the brunt of their country’s military actions and LGBT rights abuses, and were loudly booed at every turn.

As an outsider, I was riveted and fascinated to witness the ways in which Eurovision holds a mirror to the complexities of European culture and politics. It’s a glittering and surreal microcosm where bombastic musical numbers and television artifice play out the drama of longstanding rivalries and the friction between old ways and new ideas. Deeper insight into the phenomenon hasn’t in any way dampened my fervent appreciation for its delicious cheesiness, either. Instead, it leaves me even more enamored with Europe and its ability to face adversity and rise (yes, like a phoenix), transformed by spectacle and united by music.

The glory that is Eurovision

Who's to blame?

This weekend, over half the population of Europe will tune in to witness the wonderful and bizarre spectacle of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. I’ve been looking forward to this year’s musical extravaganza with more voyeuristic glee than ever, because the competition will take place right in my backyard.

I’ll be in Copenhagen when it all goes down Saturday, and though I won’t have the privilege of attending the show, I’m looking forward to the energy in the streets as tens of thousands of visitors from across Europe make their way to the arena for the final showdown.

If you’re not from around here, you may not be familiar with the glory that is Eurovision. What began in the 50’s as an initiative to foster goodwill among European countries has since become an annual pageant of lavish musical numbers that range from earnest, to cheesy, to absolutely bonkers.

Case in point is Romania’s 2013 entry, and my all-time Eurovision favorite, “It’s My Life” as performed by Cézar.

If this year gives us anything half so good, I will be delighted.

I’ll share highlights after the dust settles Sunday, but for now let’s take a look at the home team. Sweden’s 2014 entry is “Undo”, performed by Sanna Nielsen who is the favorite to take the whole competition this year. If she’s successful, it would mean Sweden’s fifth Eurovision win and their second in just three years.

When “Undo” narrowly took first place at Melodifestivalen, the national contest that determined Sweden’s Eurovision submission, there was some controversy around whether the lyrics should be modified before the song went to the big leagues. The crux of the debate was whether to change the poetic but ungrammatical “Undo my sad” to the alarmingly angsty “Undo myself“. Happily, the songwriters stayed the course, and their commitment to the song’s artistic vision might just be what puts Sweden over the top Saturday night.

I personally have nothing against Sanna, though I had dearly hoped rival number “Blame It On The Disco” would be selected to represent Sweden.

The dance moves. The costumes. The AMAZING KEY CHANGE. I was devastated when they came in third and were relegated to the dustbin of Eurovision history.

With 170,000,000 viewers last year, Eurovision’s popularity is undeniable, and yet it stirs strong and complicated feelings in the average Swede. Pretty much anyone you ask will tell you it is cheesy, silly and irrelevant, but almost everyone watches it. During Melodifestivalen’s regional and national elimination rounds, the water cooler at IKEA buzzed for weeks with commentary that was at once derisive and painstakingly detailed. Everyone agrees that the songs are horribly uncool, and yet I have witnessed Swedish girls flooding the dance floor upon hearing the first strains of Melodifestivalen runner-up Ace Wilder’s “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”

Wilder came in second by a mere three points, but despite the timeless universality of her song’s message, the dream of unearned personal wealth didn’t capture the European psyche as well as Sanna’s lovelorn anthem. I’ll admit, the songwriter and marketer in me is strangely fascinated by the Eurovision songs and what makes everyone love/hate them so much.

So like a good Swede, I’ll tune in Saturday before bed just to see what happens. Not that I care or anything; I’d just hate to miss out on the wave of secret, shameful pride that sweeps Sweden when Sanna wins it all.

Sæglópur and the Øresund bridge

I took an early train to Copenhagen on the first leg of what felt like a very long journey to Las Vegas. It was strange walking down the dark, silent streets of our little town knowing that I’d be in the permaglare of the strip just 21 hours later.

As the train drifted south,  there was cloud cover over Skåne in the early morning light, and the matchstick forests and still lakes looked like a monochrome photo in the sunrise. I was enjoying a gorgeous soundtrack to the sleepy woodland scenery courtesy of Scott’s Bose noise-cancelling headphones, which he kindly loaned me for the trip. I put on some Fleet Foxes with the vague idea that songs about spring might somehow help bring it on in this part of the world.

Skane Winter by Mark Bowman

There is so much to love about travelling with headphones. Dampening the hissing and buzzing of trains and planes is just the beginning. Music adds dimension to what the eyes see, so that everything – landscapes, faces, birds flying – touches a deeper emotion. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, the randomness of song and scenery come together to amplify the meaning of both in a moment of perfect beauty.

I experienced just such a moment as the train reached the southernmost tip of Sweden and plunged into the subterranean darkness of Malmö station.

Andy Delcambre - flickr

As we sat in the tunnel, waiting for passengers to come and go, this came on my iPod:

Some god of electronics must have put Sæglópur on my playlist because for seven minutes, that music was the animating force of everything in my universe. The stark piano chords with their touch of delay echoed through the shadows of the tunnel. The sweet, lonely voice called from the darkness as the train began to pull away and emerged into the overcast morning, picking up speed toward the Øresund bridge.

And then something happened that made my heart detonate. At the precise instant that the song broke into its orchestral fullness (that’s at 1:54 for those of you playing along at home), the earth fell away and I was flying over the slate waters of the Baltic sea. In that same moment, the sun burst from behind the clouds scattering diamonds over every whitecap.

Øresund Bridge, image by Lars Ove Törnebohm

It was literally breathtaking, and I can only imagine what my fellow passengers made of the lady gasping and clutching her chest. In a sense, I really was experiencing a cardiac episode, and it was the best episode ever.

The Øresund bridge is a marvel of modern engineering, linking Sweden and Denmark over an 8 kilometer stretch of water that connects the Baltic and North seas. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful roads with its panorama of sea and sky, flanked by the distant gleam of cities on either side. Every time I cross it, I’m moved by the sight of its gray, melancholy waters and the lonely, capsized boat in the middleground.

Oresund ship by Kristoffer Stigson

I was especially affected that morning,with Sæglópur (Icelandic for “lost at sea”) winding down into its quiet, concluding chords as we touched the Danish shore. I felt like I’d been in my very own live version of Dark Side of the Rainbow, minus the munchkins. I arrived at Kastrup airport and headed for Vegas, knowing that none of Sin City’s glitz and glitter could ever touch the perfection of Sigur Rós and a break in the clouds over the Øresund strait.