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.

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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.

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Danishes and Elderberry at Andersen bakery, Copenhagen

Danishes

Long before my first visit to Copenhagen, my mother traveled there to accompany my sister on an audition. Mom was delighted to report that the Øresund area had a thriving food culture and that the breakfast pastries in Denmark were some of the best she’d ever tasted. “They’re hard to describe,” she said. “There was fruit filling, and the pastry was light, but not overly crispy. It was almost like a… danish!” There was a pause, then everyone (including Mom) burst out laughing at the silliness of this minor eureka moment.

It makes perfect sense that the pastries in question would be called danishes. They are to Danes what croissants are to the French, and they can be found in every bakery and cold breakfast spread in Copenhagen. Oddly enough, despite their popularity, Denmark hesitates to claim these pastries as their own. The Danish call it wienerbrød, which translates as “bread of Vienna”, because locals credit Austria with the invention of this breakfast staple . Meanwhile, Austrians return the volley by referring to these pastries as Kopenhagener Plunder or Dänischer Plunder.

Figuring that a danish by any other name probably tastes just as sweet, Scott and I headed to Andersen Bakery to try them for ourselves. One of Copenhagen’s top bakeries, Andersen is named for the city’s native son, Hans Christian Andersen, and its history is almost a fairy tale in itself.

Once upon a time, a Japanese baker named Shunsuke Takaki visited Copenhagen and fell in love with the beautiful Danish pastries. He was so taken by their loveliness that when he returned to his home in the faraway land of Japan, he opened his own Danish bakery in Hiroshima. As the years passed he opened more Andersen Bakery locations, and soon the land was filled with the magical aroma of fresh bread. He ruled over these bakeries wisely, but his heart always yearned for the country where he was first inspired. Years later, Takaki’s son and daughter fulfilled their father’s dream and opened three Andersen bakeries in Copenhagen, followed by another in San Francisco.

The story ends, as every fairy tale should, with much rejoicing. Takaki’s dream is manifest in a gleaming bakery with long rows of golden and jewel-colored delights, and just one bite of Andersen’s fabled danish was enough to make me feel like I could live happily ever after. The wienerbrød’s base was an unusually tender puff pastry that had all the flaky, airy qualities you’d expect on top of an almost strudel-like chewiness. The icing was just the way I like it: not overly sweet, but perfectly set without a trace of hardness. Of the two danishes we ordered, the raspberry one was filled with an intensely flavorful seedless jam that was well balanced in sweetness and acidity. The vanilla cream version was equally impressive with generous flecks of raw vanilla bean sprinkled throughout its velvety custard filling.

Danish detail

Almost as enticing as its pastry selection was Andersen’s array of warm beverages. I ordered hyldeblomst saft, which the menu board helpfully translated as “elderflower water”. Unlike in Canada, where you only find elderberry in cocktails and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this wild woodland blossom is a staple of the Scandinavian flavor profile. My drink was served warm with lemon, and while its flavor was certainly floral, it was more like chamomile flower than rose or jasmine. After the vivid and balanced flavors of the pastries, the elderflower water was shockingly sweet, which made me wonder why it was served with a spoon. It certainly didn’t need any added sugar, and the floral notes would not have stood up to milk. Nevertheless, the spoon was there, and having nowhere else to put it, I left it in the glass where it made breakfast interesting by poking me in the eye a few times.

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If you’re in Copenhagen, I’d definitely recommend stopping in at Andersen Bakery for breakfast. The danishes are unquestionably delicious, and if you have a sweet tooth, give the hyldeblomst saft a chance. Despite its sweetness, it really is very good; so much so that next time someone tells me my father smells of elderberry, I will take it as a compliment.

Andersen Tivoli/Nimb
Bernstorffsgade 5, København
Tel: 033 75 07 35

Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.

Taunting

The fog in Copenhagen

Chapel Fog

It’s a funny time of year when the weather can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s the end of winter or the beginning of spring. The first brave little flowers and buds appear only to bend their heads to rain, cold and wind. Fortunately, with these grey days comes one of my favorite things: fog.

Scott and I recently spent a few days in Copenhagen where the white, heavy mist made the city seem like a gorgeous, eerie dream. The weird effect that fog has on sound only reinforced this impression: close-by noises were dampened so that they seemed very far away, while distant sounds were strangely amplified. The tapping of my boot heels on cobblestones and the soft, solemn lapping of water on the ancient seawall were swallowed whole in the haze, while ships’ bells clanging and rigging clanking out in the harbor sounded close enough to touch. It was like walking in a Hans Christian Andersen version of Silent Hill. In other words: fantastic.

As much as I love a foggy day, and despite having a Vancouverite’s tolerance for gloom, I was apprehensive about the prospect of all-day darkness when we first arrived in Sweden. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that some of the loveliest Scandinavian customs are inspired by the sunless days I’d so dreaded. Candles burn day and night in restaurants and hotel lobbies. Lanterns flicker outside the doors of shops and houses, while windows twinkle with lights all through the evening. In Copenhagen in particular, there are lanterns and lamps almost everywhere you look.   

Lantern

Other ways to rage against the dying of the light include painting buildings in cheerful egg tempera-like colors.

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Or, if it’s the cold that bothers you most, you can drape yourself in fur from head to toe. Copenhagen is well known for its fur, and there are animal hide coats, hats, capes, and blankets absolutely everywhere. One morning, I saw Cruella DeVille brought to life in a full-length black-spotted white rabbit-fur coat, sporting a perfect platinum bob, red lipstick and deep frown lines.

Though fur really isn’t my thing, I can see how it would be a good defense against the insidious, wet cold of a coastal Danish winter. How else could you enjoy a Carlsberg on the patio in March?

Fur Chair Covers

Far lovelier to me than the ubiquitous pelts were the nautical and military influences that dominate Copenhagen’s art and architecture. The old city is heavily fortified with stone and earthworks, and even its churches have sailing ships and cannons carved in bas-relief into their walls. This makes sense when you consider that the city has spent nine hundred years alternately trading with and being attacked by its neighbors.

Nyhavn

We stayed at the Admiral Hotel, a lovely old place that looked like a fort on the outside and a ship on the inside. There were nautical features everywhere in the building, and even the wall in our room had plaster marks where an oval-shaped hatch used to be. Coming into our room late in the evening and seeing this patch job, I thoughtlessly wondered aloud whether the building might be a converted ship. Definitely not my finest moment, though wine and jet lag share some of the blame for this spectacular foolishness. Scott looked at me incredulously before breaking out in a wide grin and saying in his best pirate voice, “Arrr, old bricky. Why’d she sink?”

Admiral Hotel

The hotel was, of course, not a converted ship. Rather, it started life in the 18th century as a warehouse on the harbor, which gave it a front row seat to a string of British attacks during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s amazing to me that despite centuries of friendly and unfriendly exchange with all of Northern Europe, Copenhagen’s culture remains so distinctly its own. For all its bitterly cold weather, the friendly people and places make it one of the warmest cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

I’m glad I got the opportunity to see Copenhagen beneath its beautiful wet blanket of fog. As we head into spring, I’ll no doubt be back to explore the vintage fairgrounds at Tivoli, or to partake in the local custom of finding a perfect seaside bench for brownbagging it on a warm night. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to make like those early flowers and turn up my collar to the wind, knowing that the sun will return soon. Copenhagen’s graffiti says it, and I believe it.

Dont Worry