Friday, May 25, 2007

When I was a young boy...

If you know me at all, it might come as a surprise that I am currently travelling with someone I’ve quite often described as the most annoying person in my life. But a moment on the flight over to Cuba changed all that.

As I looked out at the lights of Miami on the horizon, Pioneer by the Split Enz played on my MP3 player and it suddenly dawned on me: My mum is cool. I thought about it more and the realisation started to seep into every part of my being. My mum is responsible for my love of music, art, culture and a curiosity about the world that has lead to this crazy year of travel. When I was a kid, mum would take me into the then 5MMM and sit me in the studio while she did her radio program. I was dragged along to performances by U2, Dire Straights, Crowded House, Hoodoo Gurus and countless Adelaide pub bands. Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Led Zeplin ...... were all regulars on the stereo, something some of my friends parents didn't even have. Mum was on Sale of the Century back when Tony Barber and Alice Platt were in charge of things and won a pair of electric scooters (Although, she still refuses to show me the tape). My lefty sensibilities were drummed into me from an early age with “Bring Back Gough”, “NO DAMS” and “Nuclear Free Zone” badges stuck to the fridge. I was the little kid at anti war / nuclear / something-not-quite-socialist-enough demonstrations, which generated a healthy dose of cynicism towards the government and all things in charge. I was at the “This is not a fucking test transmission” launch of Triple J in Rymal Park. When I turned 14, it seemed perfectly natural for me to start doing Rock n Roll High School, with the 3D Radio veterans of the time already knowing who I was. “How’s your mum?” they would ask. While going through a marriage breakup and dealing with a troublesome son, she held down a job and managed to finish off a uni degree at Flinders, majoring in film, Latin American history and language.

All of this welled up inside of me and I began to cry. I'm such a sook these days, but really I got quite emotional. Regardless of all the shit that has happened and how frustrated I get with her at times, she’s still a pretty cool lady. And she’s my mum. A plan formed in my head. I would go to Cuba then travel to Central America and work my way down to Argentina where I would meet mum and travel about South America for a month or so, allowing her to soak in the culture she studied and the language she loves.

Then I got mugged in Havana and lost my nerve to travel.

I still knew that travel with mum would be a great idea, but the idea of doing it in another sketchy country was really daunting. I was missing home and the last thing I could think of doing was Sheparding my mum through dodgy little villages and cramming onto stinky, falling apart buses. But I had already seeded the idea of travel in mum’s head and I didn’t want to let her down. Combined with wanting to get back to Europe for Eurovision and summer in Berlin, I figured Spain was a good compromise. A plan formed and flights were booked.

I was going travelling with my mum. My sister said I was crazy. I agreed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Getaway in Stockholm

that's the power of love

At about 7am I get up and Thomas and I grab a quick bite to eat in the crew’s galley. From what’s on offer, the range is healthy enough to prevent scurvy and varied enough to avoid cabin fever for those working on the boat. After eating I go out on deck and watch the Swedish Archipelago pass by. Truly beautiful stuff. Reminded me a bit of the Hawkesbury River area near Newcastle. I meet Joakim (a photographer from the Swedish national broadcaster), and we exchange the usual Nikon vs Canon jibes with one another, like snowboarders and skiers would on a chairlift. Aside from his Nikon infraction, he’s quite a nice guy. I tell him that’s it ok, and that even some of best friends are Nikon users. After the ferry ride into Shanghai last year I made up my mind that the best way to arrive in a port city is by boat, to see the place as people have been seeing it for centuries. Stockholm certainly falls under the must be seen for the first time by boat category. As the city starts to come into view, Joakin gives me a guided a by finger tour of the place, and I occasionally confuse 17th Century churches with fun park attractions, a huge sports dome for a gas container and a communications tower for a Soviet fashioned evil genius’ not so secret military fortress. The little islands we pass have quaint red painted shacks and pretty mini-forests and petite jettys for docking one’s pleasure craft on. We begin to pass old customs houses and shipping warehouses that were built before Dirk Harthog smelt a wattle and after rounding a bend, the city reveals itself. Beautiful old buildings line the shore, sail boats dot the harbour and brides join the small islands together. Church steeples, clock towers, rock faces – awesome.

I go below deck and rejoin Thomas. We meet Monika again and we grab another bite to eat. I then return to the cabin to collect my stuff, while Thomas goes on a staff discount scout of the duty free store, later returning with the gift of chocolate from Monika, a gift that keeps on giving. We abandon ship and walk into the centre to grab a grab a coffee and get a quick orientation of the place. Emails are checked and plans for Sweden and the future are discussed. After a couple of hours, I say goodbye to Thomas and write a few emails and contact my host. I have some time to kill before finding my place, dump my bag with a kind café owner and do a little exploring by foot around the old town. Little cobblestone alleyways lead you to other cobblestone alleyways in a dizzy maze-like old school mess. Colonel Light and Escher would have a tiff and then spend the day walking around in silence if they came here for their honeymoon.

My host is a Chinese exchange student who has been studying here in Sweden for the last year or so. He lives in Rinkeby (pronounced Rink-a-boo), an area unofficially used for years by the Swedes to house all the immigrants in one convenient spot. 50 years ago you would have found only Finnish people there. Now the place resembles Sydney Road in Melbourne, with people from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. South America all living together in the one spot. Rinkeby is a fairly unique place, as there are the children of immigrants here that are in their late teens that have not learnt Swedish and keep pretty much to the small communities created by their fellow countrymen. Rinkeby-Swedish, a dialect which has been born from these conditions, is now spoken by 8% of the Swedish population. I’m no cunning linguist, but hasn’t this been the way new languages have formed since our caveman like relatives started blabbering a few million years ago? People move, new mother tongues are born.


The next day I rented a bike and rode everywhere that little guy would take me. I got a closer look at my evil genius’ not-so secret base, the fun park church, but missed out on the stadium-sized gas tank. I listened to the radio all day, bouncing between Swedish talkback and 80s flashback. I rode through a field full of lush green grass to the Eurhythmics’ Sweet Dreams; caught up on my Germanic language through an interview with Tim Burton; got busted singing Prince’s Kiss near the shore opposite the fun park by a couple of surly looking old Finnish fisherman (say hat 10 times fast); and there was a brief moment during Huey Lewis and The News’ The Power of Love where I hung onto the car I was riding beside. This moment was one that will treasure for the rest of my life.

I didn’t do my usual thing where I take an infamous car run and track it around the streets, but the Mabo of it was there. I did find a public bike pump and was disappointed that my tyres had ample pressure. The city itself reminded me a bit of St Petersburg, with the ornate old buildings set along water and less gypsies picking people’s pockets on pedestrian crossings along Nevsky Prospekt.

I didn’t really do much in the city other than ride around, hang out in cafes and frolic in the lush green grass of the outlying fields. I did meet a guy with a really nicely restored 1962 Volvo and complemented him on his Swedish pride. I had my first shot at playing a Playstation 3. Meh. Sure it has gorgeous graphics, but really not that much of an extension on game play in the same way the Wii is. A car game is still a car game, even when you can see the cars around you reflected in the virtual paintwork. On the subject of cars, I was surprised at the amount of classic American cars floating about the place. And in general, there were a greater number of flashier cars quite willing to run me over on my bike. This would be a good time to make a quick comment of the distinction between Swedes and Finns. I’ve found, and this is only my superficial impression, that Finnish culture and in general the people are a humble lot, keeping success, riches and achievement close to their hearts. One of the reasons I was so weirded out by seeing the 5 or so Hummers driving around Helsinki while I was there is that it didn’t match the idea of a Finn I had built up in my head. The Hummer to small city ratio was out of whack. But if you really want to put your Hummer/Small town ratio out of whack, visit Port Lincoln some time.

The trip back to Helsinki wasn’t as eventful as the trip over, but I did meet a group of teachers who I shared some fairly insightful conversations with about Finnish culture, living in Finland and even becoming a Finnish citizen. Kevin, one of the teachers, had come to Finland on exchange from Chicago back in 1984(?) when he was 15. A baptism of fire would be the best way to describe his experience. Don’t speak the language, don’t eat the food. Simple. Since then he’s become fluent in the language and has also spent time on a collection of southern Japanese islands teaching English between hopping between islands to attend all the different schools. A really interesting character and after we got into port, he and I went and had some lunch together. Over a coffee, I put to him my observation that there was something about the Finnish approach to respect and humbleness within the culture that reminded me of Japan. He agreed and articulated my anthropological ramblings in a much clearer way (which has since left me), but I’m glad to have found someone else that has an affinity and appreciation for both cultures. If anyone reading this is visiting the place, I thoroughly recommend meeting Kevin for a drink sometime.

Back in Helsinki, I stayed with Laila (another couchsurfer), who’s great fun to hang out with and can drink anyone under the table and through the floor if put to the challenge. Her obsession with Donald Duck comics, toasted Corinthian Piroshki and red wine made for another fun person hang with. I spent my last day in Helsinki with Maja (a journalist friend of Sofia), who showed me around the lakes and encouraged me to wear short shorts to go swimming in the freezing water. We took photos and now that May is about to tick over into June, there was plenty of falling asleep on the 'beach', soaking up the non-lethal sun to warm up with afterwards. Another great person to catch up with if I'm ever back in Finland.

Early next morning I was on a plane.
I saw The Alps from the air.
Now I’m in Barcelona.
With my mum.
Oh Lordi.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Will drive our ships to new lands

There’s a saying in Helsinki that the largest building in the city leaves for Sweden every night. This isn’t not too far from the truth. The Viking ships which carry people between Finland, Sweden and Estonia are huge and would probably put up a good challenge if stood next one of the “skyscrapers” in the CBD.

A recap: I’ve just made it to the Helsinki-Stockholm Ferry and haven’t been able to secure a cabin for the night and have been instructed by the ticket seller that I should enquire about it while onboard.

With the uncertainty about if I’m going to be staying up all night guarding my stuff playing on my mind, a bright flash goes off and a smiling guy standing behind a camera thanks me in Finnish. I had just been captured by the ship’s photographer, and was quickly armed with the instruction on how to purchase the photo while on board. I see that he is using a 30D as well, make my usual comment (snap. pat camera at my side you got one too), and hand over a card. He thanks me for the card, I enter the ship thinking nothing more of it and stow my bag in the luggage room. Time to explore and find people to hang with. I see old people. Old people all around. It’s like pension day at a discount dentures store. They are everywhere. More chasing someone to chat to rather than to stay up all night drinking duty free booze while avoiding being busted in the corridors, I was looking for anyone under 40. I was expecting at least a smattering of people under thirty, even the odd middle ager, but no. Wall-to-wall mothballs and crochet. My host in Tampere said that this boat trip is a big part in the right of passage for Finnish youth. According to her, the Finns lose their virginity under three different conditions: On midsummer’s night, on this boat or on this boat on midsummer’s night, with the last one being a highly converted form of getting one’s cherry popped. The only thing at risk of being popped onboard tonight was someone’s hip joint while doing the maceraina. I go up to the top deck and watch Helsinki slip away from view, with the little islands in the bay, each with their own personality, sliding past he sides of the boat. The pointy fortress of Suomenlinna passes by. After that the islands thin out and for something that had been talked up quite a lot, the little islands come to unexpected and rather unsatisfying end.

I walk past a big display of all the photos taken earlier that day, and just as I spot my picture, the photo guy comes over and we start chatting. Travelling, photos and cycling. Turns out that he is has just signed up for couchsurfing, he will be doing a bike tour through Germany real soon and loves taking photos. After a bit of chatting I ask if he knows where I can ask about cabins and he just says "well, let's make this my first couchsurf. You can take the spare bunk in my cabin" Photographer. Cyclist. Couchsurfer. Friend.

Thomas asked me to swing by his stand at 11pm, so I kill time watching the on-board musicians going through the numbers, play with some video editing on my computer and occasionally go outside to soak in the 8-10pm twilight. I stand on the heliport and Led Zeppelin's The Immigrant Song plays in my head. Ahhh Ah. I get some stares. I've got to stop singing to myself, a curse left over from driving to Vegas without a radio. I go back inside and chat with a few other people on board. I go into the duty free store and start chatting with the bored looking girl who’s giving out free samples of chocolate and Baileys. She seemed happy to have someone interact with her on a deeper level than the primal grunts of ‘give me more baileys’ she had been getting all evening. I leave the store and spot a small group of spotty teenager boys and girls huddled around a non-functioning air hockey table, sneaking sips of poorly hidden vodka. I get the odd feeling that even though I once was a teenager, the thought of having some random 28 year old guy approaching me and a group of friends to strike up a conversation was something of an oddity, with the older person being relegated to the weirdo file soon after. I avoid talking with them and end up chatting to a bunch of older Swedish and British ladies who were celebrating the birthday of two of the girls in the group. “why are you talking to us love? You be off charming some young girl.”

11pm comes and I meet up with Thomas. He has some reprints he needs to process and takes me to the development machine room. The idea that the ship has its own photo lab astounds me. Even though I’ve often thought of being a photographer on a ship, capturing people’s holidays, but I never considered the printing. With the prints taken care of, we go grab a beer and then watch the dance show, with the Estonian and Russian dancers Thomas had befriended recently. Once the show ends, we join them in the stairwell (‘our change room’), behind the stage and drink champagne and with strawberries, while several infractions of the recently enforced no smoking on board policy occurring. I meet some of the members from the house band and get the impression that old soviet countries throughout Eastern Europe is where the richer, western countries source their entertainment from. When we finished the bottle of bubbles, we hit the dance floor in the discotek a few rooms over. By this stage I have a little booze under my belt (I’m a cheap date, it really doesn’t take much), I start dancing around like a bit of a loon, with the thought that I’m in a nightclub on a boat floating somewhere between Finland and Sweden giving me energy to bounce around. The music stops and the ugly lights come on at 2am and Thomas and I head back to the cabin. As soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m asleep, only waking briefly to catch a glimpse of Åland out of the curtains at 4am.

Tomorrow I will be in Sweden. Valhalla, I am coming!


Friday, May 18, 2007

Moomin Mugs

Once the circus that was Eurovision had moved on for another year, Helsinki returned to its quiet little self, albeit with a few more stains on the stairs of the big white church. Sofia was taking off on a three week holiday to the Denmark and Hungary, so it was time to do a bit more Couchsurfing. I stayed with Aikku and her four or was that five.. No, six. No, three flatmates around the corner from Kamppi. Unfortunately, the sneezing I had earlier in the day had turned into a bit of a loogie by the next morning, turning me into a snot monster for the day. The weather was cruddy and I spent most of the afternoon hiding out in the music library, occasionally escaping for fish soup and coffee. I trawled through a bunch Suomi labelled music, finding fuzz rock, electro and the all important obligatory Finnish metal. Talk about melancholy and the infinite sadness. This country is a very cold and dark place during the winter, which has rubbed off on some of the musicians. I get back to the flat and tell Aikku what I’ve been doing and her and her flatmate hand over even more music. One group who have been getting fairly good play on my MP3 player is Magyar Posse, who produce a sound pretty similar to Mogwai and Godspeed – I recommend listening to this while walking around shopping centres.

The next day I pack some clothes into my Eurovision satchel and bus the 50kms East to Porvoo, where Sid, Ninnu and Ronja reside in amongst the forest. I stayed with these guys last year through Couchsurfing after Pip and I emerged from Russia. They were a breath of fresh western air after the three months of Japan, China, Mongolia and Russia I had endured and now I was back in Finland, I would have been quite the bastard if I didn’t pay them a visit. Sid (American), and Ninnu (Finnish) met six years ago while they were backpacking separately through Eastern Europe. They fell in love, married, with Ronja coming along a couple of years later and now they live in beautiful little Porvoo. They feed me and we chat for a couple of hours about what’s been going on over the last eleven months. Ninnu already has plans to go out on a ladies night and Sid and I hang out at the flat, playing with cameras, drinking wine and talking shit until the wee hours. In the morning, we drive out to Ninnu’s sister’s place, where some of her family have assembled to help build a patio deck for the summer. Sid mixed concrete and Ninnu's dad built foundations with bricks and holes in the ground. Not of any use to the construction site, I went on a bike ride through nearby forest. Did you know that 61% of Finland is covered with forest? I guess this is why their paper is so good. In the forest, I sat with the trees and lounged with the grass, listening to bees buzz around their hive while I watched the clouds slip by from the perspective of the weird moss that only seem to grow up here. Lots of sun and laziness. When I got back, I was put in charge of looking after four girls, all under the age of four. No one is mortally wounded under my watch, but a piano was played, cars clambered upon, trees climbed and cake & tea was enjoyed.

I stay another night in Porvoo, using the next morning to hang out with Sid, Ninnu and Ronja to say my goodbyes. It'll be a long time before we see each other again. We ate porridge, drew postcards, drank from Moomin mugs and rode through the forest (much greener and lusher than the one from the previous day), a place where I enjoyed riding through so much last year. It felt a bit weird saying goodbye to them, especially when it got to the bit "you're welcome any time you come to Austr..".I pause half way through saying Australia, and in a split instant I consider my future. Coming to Porvoo again has allowed me to reflect on the year that was. The adventures on bikes, other people’s couches and far off lands. It really has been a crazy year, filled with extreme highs and lows, exploring the four corners of my head and seeing plenty of the world along the way. Now that I've reflected on the last 12 months, thoughts on what to do with the next 12 begin to solidify. Eee gads. There are long term plans afoot.

When I get back to Helsinki I head to Aikku's to pick up my main pack, and out of the half dozen people that frequent her house, no one is home. I phoned and get no answer. I killed a bit of time at a cafe across the street and call a few more times, getting an empty line. About an hour later, I try knocking at the door again and a rather hung over Aikku answers the door. A big night. I collect my stuff, say my goodbyes and walk to the Viking Line office near to the centre. When I get there, they can’t sell me a ticket as the boat is too close to departing and tell me to get my arse down to the terminal to buy my ticket there. Arg… I speed walk with my pack the 3km to the terminal and the girl sells me a ticket for travel, but says she can’t sell me a bed spot as it is too close to the departure time. She says I need to ask on board about upgrading my ticket to get a bed and wishes me a safe journey. I walk up the gangway and think to myself, “Great. No place to sleep. This is going to be a fun night.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Screw Beijing, 2008 is all about Belgrade

The Eurovision Song competition is like a musical based on the last two hundred years of European politics. War wounds and old grudges supposedly dissolved by treaties, unions and handshakes are still alive and well. The songs apologise for past mistakes, display Big Four arrogance or give a country the chance to put its best foot forward in a celebration of new found national identity. This is why Russia will never win, the UK will always suck, Germany will always be happy and fun loving, Eastern Europe will dominate the competition for the next decade and why Cyprus' 12 points will always go to Greece.

Eurovision has entertained me for about eight years now, and when Tim Clark attended the 2002 show in Tallinn, I’ve imagined sitting in some far off land watching the freak show unfold on stage in front of me. For an Australian, once you’re overseas, you are overseas. Jumping countries, oceans and time zones doesn’t matter to us, just as long as we don’t go back home in between. It’s not that we don’t like Australia, but the time and money involved in leaving means that once we go, we go properly. Even my tangent journey through Cuba, Mexico and the US couldn’t stop me going. Those travels had to be truncated and adjusted to fit around my bad pop music schedule. My own Eurovision experience began in March last year, on a boat bouncing around the choppy waves of the Japan Sea. While I nursed a good dose of embarrassment and a fresh gash to my forehead over some beers, my Finnish saviour/captor explained to me (in the Mika Häkkinen voice all Finnish men seem to have), his country's entry to the 2006 competition: “We will win Eurovision this year. We have a Monster Rock entry. Lordi.” – His black clothing and long blond hair gave him the authority to speak on monster rock, but not Eurovision. I questioned a country’s logic behind entering a rock band with cookie monster vocals into a competition traditionally full of formulaic pop songs, but he was addiment. Finland would be victorious. Jump forward a couple of months to a dinner party in St Petersburg, where the hosts [a couple in their forties who frequent the Tuska (Finnish for severe pain) festival], were expressing their joy that a monster rock band, as ludicrous as they were, took home the prize. This as the first chace I had got to vew the performance, and from that moment, Finland’s genius was apparent. Then in August last year at the Sziget festival, I met Sofia, a Finnish newspaper and radio journalist. We were the sole representatives from our respective countries and after bonding over shots of Unicum and late night dancing, an invite to Helsinki was extended to me.

The day of the competition arrives and Sofia and I take the four Melbourne tram stops to the Hartwall Areena where the show is being held to collect my media pass. I was a little nervous, as the confirmation email I sent back acknowledging my accreditation hadn’t been replied to, and I feared that my trip to Finland may have been in vain. We enter the press centre, pass through the metal detectors and x-ray machines and head for the accreditation stand. I present my ID and the girl behind the counter types a few things into the computer. “Sorry. You’re not on the list.” Crestfallen, I explain the email conversation with the media rep where I had been granted a pass but hadn’t received confirmation and the girl asks me to wait while she speaks to her boss. She comes back and says that everything is cool. I sit, my photo is taken and my pass is printed out. This makes my day. Sofia expresses her disappointment that she had forgotten to apply for a pass and I ask her to wait while I collect my orientation pack.

The press area was a space where a family of jumbo jets would consider settling down in, raising a few Cessnas and maybe even digging a veggie patch. The huge space was dotted with little areas where people could just chill out and watch the competition or interview the stars, with various stalls and rooms devoted to the different elements of entertainment news making. Clusters of journalists had claimed their spots, swapping contact details in a display akin to an American Psycho business card exchange session. Finnish volunteers would dart between the groups, handing out little messages or running miscellaneous errands from one side of the room to the other. I collected my orientation pack (a black kannettava tietokone bag with colourful, Marimekko designed Eurovision graphics sprawled in one corner), and took a tour of the media area, soaking in the grand concept that I, after eight years of following it, was at Eurovision. I wanted to keep the tour quick, but my legs involuntarily walked me to a door marked “Canon professional photography services”. Within, I found two guys in full photographer regalia (think vests with pockets), one busily working away at a rather lusty looking camera, the other giving me a big smile welcoming me to his stall. I ask if they do sensor cleaning, expecting the usual “no, but we know a place in a far off land where you can get it done for €60 and it will take about a week” answer. What I got was: “Yes, free and we can have your camera back in 15 minutes. How does that work for you?” For the second time in the last 10 minutes my day is made. The guy behind the counter then starts showing me an unfamiliar, but impressive looking Canon camera. The €4,000 EOS-1D Mark III. Umm.. yeah.. wow. This tech is a serious piece of hard-core camera porn and I fondle it for a bit.

I leave the service booth to tell Sofia what’s going on, and almost bump into her as I walk out the door. It appears she had talked her way into getting a last minute press pass. Nice work. Her work gives her a totally legitimate reason for getting one, just totally forgot to apply when she was supposed to. We walk past one of the massive plasma screens where the previously dispersed crowd had gathered and we’re informed that the full dress rehearsal was about to commence. I pick up my camera and rejoin Sofia. The demon guy beckons the audience to walk through the vail of smoke and disappears. Cue awesome video. dramatic helicopter shots of arctic landscape; Exploding ice; monsters running about the place changing into wolves. The sort of images I would have loved on my quilt covers as a kid. Simply awesome. As the pre-packaged footage dissolved into the live performance from the nearby auditorium, soaring power cords and flames fly from the guitars while Mr Lordi stands at the end of the catwalk holding a fireworks spewing axe over his head. In his other hand, a microphone to scream the lyrics from Eurovision’s highest scoring song ever, “Hard Rock Hallelujah”. It was at this moment the weirdness of returning to Helsinki melted away and like a bed in a hotel with overzealous cleaning staff, my day was made for a forth time.

We then left, on the hunt for outfits for the evening. I had the plan to be the best dressed photographer there. Judging on the early look in at the competition; anything with a collar was going to suffice. I had suit tunnel vision and after flaking out on a perfect three piece in Tampere (€40 is a bit steep for a one time use suit), I was desperate. Sofia informed me that that day was €1 day at the national op-shop chain store UFF. At the most, I’d be dropping about €5 to look the shit for the evening. But as soon as we entered the first store, which was seething with people and looked as if it had come off second best with a mechanical ransacking machine, I knew landing something snazzy would be a challenge. There were no complete suits and my only options were mixed trouser jacket combinations that did not do my chances of best in show any good. Sofia managed to land a cute little red dress straight away, a world first for a male/female shopping team. Deciding not to waste time calling Guinness, we headed to the next UFF, passing a few groups of people sporting the distinctive yellow bag and found the same situation. No clothes and the results of an all conquering Ransack Machine. I was beginning to panic; with my suit pipe dream looking like it was coming to an abrupt end. We headed to the next and final store, and it looked worse than the others. Every rack empty, except for the occasional Makita hat and lonely shoe. I look at the attendant in despair and she points to a set of stairs leading to a big basement crawling with eager shoppers and chock full of racks of clothing. Pay dirt. After getting into a discussion with a Finnish rapper, I eventually went home with a speckled number and a stripy orange shirt with matching 70s tie. Sofia and I returned to her flat where we met up with her boyfriend and a couple of their mates. We drank Russian Champagne and tasty Romanian vodka, celebrating a day well done.

Unfinished champagne bottle in hand, we arrive at the venue an hour or so early and separate so that Sofia and Antti can grab their assigned seats. I enter the press zone and start mingling with the now much larger crowd of journos and media types. I meet Latvian, Spanish, Finnish, British, Ukrainian, Armenian, Serbian, Russian… you name it, I met it. The UK people were far too important to chat to me, the Finnish were out in force, the Czechs were swimming in beer and the Russians were easily the best dressed of the night. When it neared the time for me to leave and head over to the show, the Ukrainians corralled me into their corner of tables and plied me with some fairly nice vodka from their home country. I see the clock, freak and run out of the building. I run all the way to the venue, discovering half way that my new woollen suit was not really cutting out as something to exercise in. I make it to the door, where I am informed that no pro cameras are allowed in the venue. Bummer. I check the camera and find the way to my seat. I enter just as Lordi are walking out onto stage. There is a little confusion with the security guy, but I managed to get my seat as the pre-recorded operatic section finishes and Lordi thump into their song. I swear, this is just what Eurovision needed. An injection of twenty hours no sunlight crazy from a little Scandinavian place like Finland. Sparks fly and I smell the burnt sulphur of the on-stage fireworks. I get comfortable and enjoy the spectacle, feeling I have so far had a pretty cool day. I have arrived.

As entertaining as the rest of the show was, there really wasn’t anything that out did the stage presence of Lordi. The roar after Hanna (the Finnish act), was deafening. Watching the small factions within the crowd jump up and go mental for their respective countries was a cool sight. The performers all went through their numbers, the stage team use a fancy grid system displayed on the floor video screens to perform complicated stage changes and a carefully choreographed camera crew run about with steadi-cams and swing crane mounted cameras. All invisible to the audience at home, but really exciting from a production point of view. Once all the bands had done their thing, I headed back over to the press area for the count. Thankfully the Magary Medal like drag of this part of the show has been stream lined in the last few years, relegating the first 7 votes to a quick graphic, saving the drama of the 8, 10 and 12 points to the country’s reps. This usually goes without a hitch, but the Slovenian girl (who said she was the previous year's entrant), was coked to the eyeballs and got distracted by singing and looked as if she forgot to read out the results. I can just imagine Terry Wogan ripping her a new one with his commentary. Once the count was nearing the end, Ukraine and Serbia became the two clear leaders. When it became clear who had one, all cameras were pointed at the Serbian media contingent, making them the stars of the night. The BBC group, who were the rudest people there, walked off in disgust, thinking they were the deserving winners of the night. Righto. Please for the love of all things holy; there is so much good English music. Take this competition seriously and don’t come back until Bill Drummond (a suggestion bounced around between friends), is onboard. The Ukrainians were graceful second place getters, with the realisation that the novelty act for the evening had already been and gone last year and that there was a few more bottles of vodka left. Not able to attend the after party, the stories I’ve heard since make it sound like that was the spectacle of the evening. The lead guy from Swedish group The Ark, who had convinced himself that victory was theirs, complained about the competition being rigged, got drunk, lost some clothing and started swinging punches with a group of jubilant Serbians. I’ve since been told that at a gig back in 2000, the guy swung naked from the rafters of the venue, while slurring along to the music. How very rock and roll.

A great time had by all, and depending on where I am this time next year, I might see you in Belgrade.

By the way, my mum is really cool. She just went to the Hill Top Hoods playing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Nice one.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

press pass

Nuff Said

Go Finland...

Friday, May 11, 2007

sound protection

After having a fab time in Providence and a great last day in New York (a thousand thankyous to the wonderful Audra), I flew from JFK to Dublin and spent 5 days readjusting to jet lag and hanging out with Clair, Allie & the funky bunch. Great to see these guys again, with glorious warm weather following me from New York. I'll write a little more on my final few days in the US and subsequent adventures in Ireland later, but I have a fresh adventure laying out in front of me to talk about.

I arrived in Finland a few days ago, hung out in lovely Tampere for a couple of days with my full-on London accented Finnish host and another traveller from Colorado. It's a beautiful little town, almost made into an island by the amount of lakes surrounding it. I purchased the tastiest doughnut I've ever eaten at the lookout tower and the mini-golf fun park frustrated me more than it should of. My cousin Judith, who's been in Finland for the last 5 months on exchange, lives there but was in Sweden during the time I was in Town. I forgot to put my battery in my camera during the walk I went on with the others, but after hearing the story of the 50-something drunk woman getting her kit off in the name of summer in front of the audience at a free outdoor concert, the forgotten battery seemed like a blessing. Earlier today, Travis (The American backpacker), and I hitched a ride down to Helsinki with a Finnish trucker. We used dance and two hand made sign (Helsinki Kiitos and Euroviisut), to land our lift. Our trucker bloke told us in nicely Russia-fied English that he imports cars from overseas and sells them to Russians who come over the border to purchase an "appearance of affluence increaser": Otherwise known as a 3 year old Peugeot.

Arriving in Helsinki was an odd experience. Our tucker mate dropped us off just out of town and Travis and I caught the bus in. As we got closer to the centre, we passed by places I recognised from a year ago. Oh there's where I stayed. Oh there's that park where that free concert was. There's the train station. Oh that's right, the trams do look like they're from Melbourne. While I've always wanted to go to Eurovision, I never thought when I eventually did that it would be in a place where I have personal history. Strange.


While in Tampere, I watched the semi finals on the telly with the others, occasionally getting a translation of the Finnish subtitles. I can't believe Czech Republic, with lyrics like 'I steal coins from the fountain near your cave and put them on the railway tracks', were eliminated. I'm glad Israel is out, because their song Push the Button, was rubbish but really catchy. I was surprised Austria, with their gay aesthetics and Bon Jovi/Backstreet Boy sounding song got cut. I thought Switzerland's DJ Bobo would have appealed to more mid20s Eurotrash fans as Vampires are alive didn't make the cut either. Andorra's Blink 182 rip off got the flick as the country is too small to actually host a Eurovision if they were to win. Bulgaria = Drums. Belarus has a nice Bond theme sounding diddy with secret stair staging. Well done Georgia for getting a birth on your first go, pity your song is 3 years old. According to the Finnish version of Terry Wogan, if Montenegro win they'll have to host the competition in Romania as they don't have enough money. Moldova's lass has some smutty pant thing going on. Norway's clothing tomfollery will have you wondering if there is going to be a Janet incident. Malta has a gong. The back up dancers from Estonia's entry look like the guys from Franz Ferdinand. Belgium's soft funk band has synchronised brass instruments. Slovenia has a Gothic operatic thing going on with the singer sporting a magic light up hand.

Tomorrow I hit the local op-shop circuit, purchase a fancy 70s suit (possibly safari), pick up my photo pass from the press centre and attend the final of Eurovision 2007, where the opening act is last year's winner Lordi.

Hard Rock Hallelujah.

Keep the fondue fires burning for me back home. Full wrap up in a couple of days.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Park Roles

Coney Island is a sketchy place. It reminded me of a more established version of the inner part of the racetrack at the Oakbank Easter carnival. There has been talk about the whole place being bulldozed to make way for some fancy beach-side condos. According to one of the characters I chatted with, this has been something that's been talked about for years and he'll believe it when he sees it. I guess if you have a hankering for a dodgy entertainment throwback from yesteryear, get your skates on as the local rag (a little paper going by the name of The New York Times), with a quote from the mayor of NYC laying out some fairly serious looking redevelopment plans for the area.

On the subject of skates, I checked out Central Park, Harlem and surroundings. Harlem seems not to begin at the "Across 110th Street" mark as the Bobby Womack song would have you believe. Gentrification and the top crust of Manhattan property buyers have created a new area, SOHA (South Of HArlem). Well, actually a newish building development has acquired the name for a collection of ill-fitting modern inner city apartments. Seriously, how hard is it for architects to design a building that isn't a complete contrast to the older buildings around it? I know there is a certain amount of artistic flair an architect wishes to exercise when designing their buildings.. Anyhoo.. I wandered around Harlem, listening to a James Brown tribute playing on the local radio station in my headphones. Once I reached 125th street, things started to look a bit sketchy (cars on blocks, an inordinate amount of graffiti, odd looks indicating that maybe, possibly my kind did not belong in this hood), and I headed back down south, reaching Morningside Park, which eventually brought me to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. From the outside, the Cathedral looked abandoned and in desperate need of repair. I asked a passing guy what the story was about the place, and he suggested I check out the back entrance just around the corner. Ok. I wander up to an open gate, walked in and found myself in a deserted carpark, with a security booth that looked as if no one secured the surrounding area in years. Things looked rather dodgy and sketch, but curiosity got the better of me and I went through a nearby door which had been left propped open. Inside I found a small, modern looking corridor which looked out of place. I sheepishly walked in, and a smartly dressed woman walked around a nearby corner. She startled me and I asked if it was ok for me to be in the building. She nodded and pointed to a bigger door further down the hall. I thanked her, opened the door and found myself in a fully functional, extremely large Church. A strong smell of frankincense greeted me as I realised that the 80 or so occupants of the church were in the middle of a fairly full on, organ backed Sunday hymn.

I left the Cathedral and walked south down Amsterdam Avenue, eventually finding myself standing, salivating in front of the Hungarian Pastry Shop. A desire for Magyarish cakes (laying dormant for six month), awoke and I entered. I was disappointed to find out that the only Hungarian member of the staff was off that day. No throwing around my bastardised Hungarian. I grabbed a coffee, a little cake and fell into a conversation about genetics with a couple of girls sitting at a nearby table.

With my coffee finished and the subject of nature verses nurture discussed, I ventured down to Central Park to meet up with Audra. I have a good hour and a bit to kill beforehand and use it to venture around the northern part of the park. People played their park roles well, sitting around, playing football, entertaining children with squirrel spotting, reading the paper or enjoying an ornithological telescopic warm, overcast day. I saw a woman appreciating a branch full of blossom and I think to myself that while skiers chase winter and surfers chase summer; at that moment I was quite content to chase spring forever.

I arrived at the meeting spot about 20 minutes early and the thud of a nearby bass bin toyed with my attention and eventually dragged me towards a large group of people. In the middle of the crowd is a small oval track full of skaters with the middle part populated by a DJ booth (thankfully not carnies). Eventually I meet up with Audra and after about 30 minutes of watching people pass by on tiny wheels, we venture south down through some of her favourite parts of the park. She points out sections and relates stories from her time working here on The Gates project. It seems that being on good terms with the new mayor of New York can even tolerate golf cart racers around Sheep’s Meadow. We hang out near the ice rink and watch the daylight disappear behind the skyline and the lights switch on in the nearby buildings. We grab some pretty awesome Turkish food in the Meatpacking district (you read that correctly), and head home.

The following couple of days I venture over to Queens and further explore the west village. I didn’t really get a good look at Queens (I was bummed that PS1 was closed), and ended up hanging out around the shoreline, watching helicopters take off in front of the UN. chatting to random Australians, discussing punk music with barristers and hearing about the dangers of Queens from a stationary shop owner (I’m ok as it’s hard to steal any amount of paper that is actually worth something). I get back to the apartment and I have an invite to Providence waiting for me, which nicely replaces my Hudson Valley adventure plans.