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Selam, selam, here we go again, on a journey to… well, you know

by | May 2, 2019

Selam, selam, here we go again, on a journey to… well, you know

by | May 2, 2019 | Eurovision, Featured | 1 comment

Jerusalem, 1979. I wasn’t yet born when Israel won its second Eurovision title on home turf, but with the late 70s and early 80s pretty much being the height of Israel at Eurovision, the amount of Eurovision exposure I absorbed as a kid is not particularly surprising. I may not remember this particular moment because I was too young, but my parents always liked telling me over the years how I’d sing “Ole Ole”, Israel’s 1985 entry, around the house and the changes I inflicted on the lyrics because I was unable to pronounce them properly.

Although I have been a Eurovision fan for most of my life, I actually hadn’t watched the 1979 edition in full until a few years ago. I’ll confess that I definitely don’t know all the songs from all the years, despite my attempts over time to catch up on my history, but the 1979 Eurovision was a big thing in Israel and as such I knew – and have watched – many songs from that year. It’s weird to think that very few countries have managed that feat of winning at home. I remember watching Ireland in the 90s and thinking how incredible it must have felt for the audience in the hall, and yet it never occurred to me to watch our own equivalent moment.

My excuse was that watching it in retrospective was not the same. It probably isn’t, but I was still wrong in some ways, because it was impossible for me to not feel emotional when I finally did watch it. I also managed to not know how close that vote was, so even though I knew the result, I got sucked right in. I still rewatch the voting from time to time, and the combination of the atmosphere in the hall, the voting itself and the display of green room sportsmanship from the runner-up, Spain, always gets me teary-eyed. That kind of nostalgic moment – even if it’s not part of my own memories – sometimes really makes me understand people who long for how things used to be. When things were simpler, more naïve and pure. I’d roll my eyes at myself for the last sentence, but when you compare it to what Eurovision is today, both in terms of the actual broadcast and the evolution of music and stage technology, not to mention all the things that surround it with social media and online betting odds and whatnot – it has the same name, but it’s a different ball game.

הלב מלא בהמון תודה

Jerusalem, 1989. While I know I watched Eurovision before 1989 thanks to stories of my childhood, this is the first competition I actively remember. Oddly enough, though, the two things that have been somehow the most constant things in my life – Eurovision and my love for words – are things that I have no real memory of getting into. I’ve already loved them ever since my earliest memories. I taught myself to read when I was four, so I don’t have a recollection in which I don’t know how to read, and when my classmates were learning to write the alphabet, I was writing a diary.

Eurovision, somehow, is the same. 1989 may be the first edition I remember, but what I also remember from that night is me nagging my dad to make sure he taped it in case I fell asleep, so by this point I already knew what it was and was fully invested in it. I ended up rewatching “Rock Me” about a million times over the next weeks, but whenever I’m asked what the moment was that made me a Eurovision fan, I don’t have an answer. Either I don’t know what it was, or maybe I just don’t remember. In any case, it makes no difference: from the point my childhood memories begin, exactly 30 years ago, I was a Eurovision fan.

Jerusalem, 1999. Do you have those moments when you look back at your younger self and have a chuckle? Oh, so young, so innocent, so freaking clueless. That’s me back in May 1999, a month away from high school graduation and mere months from the beginning of my two-year mandatory military service. Having gone to a nerd school and majored in computer science, I had internet access way before most people had internet at home, and by the time the 1999 rehearsals began, I had spent the year since Dana International’s victory in Birmingham writing on online messageboards and chatting in an IRC chatroom that was, in fact, the earliest incarnation of our own #esc.

What does that have to do with my remarkable cluelessness? The ICC, the hall which hosted both the 1979 and 1999 contests, was one bus stop away and about ten minutes’ walk from my high school. Talk about Eurovision being close to home. Being a person who began skipping classes back in the sixth grade, I had no issues getting off the bus on the first day of rehearsals instead of heading to school. I walked through the underground tunnel which connects the Jerusalem Central Bus Station and the ICC, walked through the main doors which led to the OGAE booth – back then I had no clue what that was either – and was actually surprised (and disappointed) to find out I couldn’t progress beyond that main entrance hall.

Seriously, you know nothing, Shi.

It was the first time I heard the word “accreditation”, which sounds so ridiculous to me today – but the 17-year-old version of me who had been dreaming of becoming a journalist since pretty much the second grade, not to mention obsessing online about the 1999 competition for a whole year, had no clue it was even a thing. And that not having this thing meant, even though I was standing so close to this event I loved so much, I couldn’t really touch it. Yes, do feel free to insert a promised land analogy here. I reckon it fits.

I spent that day like a proper groupie, hanging out at the OGAE booth and the outdoor area in front of the hall, and actually managed to meet some of the artists along the way. Somewhere in Jerusalem there’s a photo album with some fabulous outdoor photos I took of the Danish duo, and I’ll forever remember Selma fondly for realizing she was out of press packs and then disappearing into the depths of the hall to track down the Icelandic HoD to get one for me.

Model hosts and a model set

If you think this is where my 1999 story ends, you’re wrong.

When I eventually made it to school, I was met by my English teacher, who noticed I looked pretty sad. I told her about my visit to the hall and my disappointment of not being able to witness more of it. Which is of course what every normal teenager does, confesses to teachers about their hobbies and feelings, especially when they hadn’t bothered to show up to classes for the last six years. But my teachers always really liked me, oddly, despite my very shoddy attendance and homework record, and English was my best subject anyway. So maybe this explains what happened next. Instead of getting scolded about cutting school to hang out at the ICC, my teacher told me that her uncle works for the IBA, that when she was my age he had her visit the 1979 rehearsals, and that she’d ask him to do the same for me.

And she did. Which is how I ended up spending the next two days with a production guest pass, sitting in the front row of the rehearsals of all delegations. I know that most people aren’t very fond of the 1999 stage, and I suppose that from the perspective of a viewer at home I can understand why – but having spent so many hours near it, seeing it being operated and getting to know all the details that you don’t get to see at home, it remains one of my favorites to this day.

San Francisco, 2009. I don’t remember where I watched Alexander Rybak getting everyone’s douze points. It might have been at my Berkeley home, projecting it onto my living room wall, or it could have been at a friend’s house, at an annual gathering of European friends (and occasionally non-European partners who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into).

So much had happened between that day in front of the ICC and the Norwegian fairytale. I served in the military for 2.5 years, backpacked around Ireland for a month in my first solo outing to a foreign land, worked for IBA for five years, got that dream job I wanted with a national newspaper, and got to live my childhood dream of covering a big sporting moment for my home country at the Olympics – it doesn’t get better than your nation’s first (and still only) gold medal, does it? I also added one edition of the Winter Olympics to the mix, and since I clearly knew what accreditation was by then, I also attended the 2004 Eurovision in Istanbul – where I befriended the Ukrainian delegation and dancers from the get-go, which made for a pretty interesting Eurovision journey – and the 2005 edition in Kiev, where I was adopted by the Greek fans as an honorary Greek and stood in the second row when Elena Paparizou won it for Greece for the first time. As far as good moments go, I’ve been lucky.

I also fulfilled another dream and got accepted to one of the world’s best journalism schools, in Berkeley, so I packed my things and moved half a world away. I know that it’s a huge privilege to find yourself at the point of figuring out your next dreams because you’ve actually achieved all the ones you’ve had, but realizing that journalism wasn’t my main life goal anymore, after all the things I have done, was pretty unsettling. Add to that the American economy crashing when I graduated in 2008, and you’d get to where I was in May 2009. Lost, barely making enough to get by while making websites for people who also had no work, which is why they needed a website in the first place. I didn’t even have health insurance, which added to my perpetual stress. But I had Eurovision. I always had Eurovision.

It’s a scary thought, really. No matter where I was in life, and no matter what I’ve been through, I haven’t missed a single Eurovision broadcast since that night in 1989.

I don’t remember much from the 2009 edition – not from watching the live broadcast, anyway – but I do remember that in those scary years of finding my footing and fighting to survive on my own in a place so far away, the Eurovision season, and especially the rehearsals and the live shows, were a blessed respite from everything else. That’s the thing about the constant things in our lives – they are always there, and drowning in uncertainty and anxiety, Eurovision was my safe place.

We are the winners of Eurovision

10,058m above Greenland, 2019. I’m barely halfway through the first leg of my trip to Tel Aviv. The screen in front of me tells me that I’m still eight hours away from my Istanbul layover – a city which, incidentally, I haven’t had the chance to visit (or even pass through) since I left it in May 2004 – and this should explain fairly well how I ended up in this retrospective mood to begin with. But how can I not reflect on all that, really? Going from the successful Eurovision country that we were in the 70s and that 1998 win to the one victory we’ve had in this millennium, not to mention the geopolitical reality – it was truly hard to believe that we’d ever win it again. And then we did.

“Yes! You’re coming home!”

That’s my mom, texting me about 15 seconds after the winner’s announcement last year. Over the next 24 hours it was followed by similar texts from other family members and friends. I hadn’t attended a Eurovision since 2005, even though I intended to many times over the years. It just didn’t quite work out. But there was no doubt in the mind of anyone who knows me: I’ll be going to this one.

So here I am. Sitting in this damn plane and unable to sleep, as always, with gifts for the family, a Mahmood album and an accreditation pick-up voucher in my carry-on, counting the minutes – quite literally, sadly – until my Tel Aviv touchdown.

In some ways it feels like I’ve actually gone backward and not forward. A production pass in 1999, a press accreditation for an Israeli daily newspaper in 2004 and 2005, and a fan accreditation this year, required on behalf of escgo! – which I ironically applied for as an American citizen, as I pretty much figured out applying through the Israeli delegation wouldn’t work this year.

But in the ways that matter to me, and those sneaky dreams that keep morphing and changing over the years, I am light years ahead. Ever since I stopped working as a full-time journalist and writer, I kept writing on the side – sometimes as a freelancer for media outlets and sometimes just for myself, for blogs, for unofficial publications and anyone who had a space for me to be me. Writing the View from San Francisco series for escgo! over the last few years, I realized something: I really like getting to do my own thing. I like writing about Eurovision and not filtering myself and not having to explain things or delete content or angles that a mainstream audience just wouldn’t get. That option is always open to me – and I still write sports stories once in a while, where I don’t particularly mind sticking to the basics while writing for a wider audience. But Eurovision? That’s my personal thing. That’s my constant and my safe place and where I get to be the way I want to be and write what I want to write.

In terms of escgo! and our live coverage from ESC 2019, I’m not sure what that is yet. It will of course include the rehearsal coverage in some form – this also depends on the venue setup (‘F’ accreditation often coming with certain restrictions), and just generally figuring out my direction once I start. It will probably also be all kind of other things which can result from that crazy little thing called Eurovision, my equally crazy brain, and the added weight of covering Eurovision on such familiar territory. But it will be all me, and unlike the last few years, it will not be based on short clips from the feed or rehearsals taped from one angle at the back of the hall and with crappy sound.

I’ve spent the last 14 years realizing the difference that being in the hall for rehearsals can make – for better and for worse: you learn a lot from seeing everything, but you also can get wrapped up in the bubble and see things that aren’t really there. I want to see if I have learned anything from being away for so long. And mostly, I want to allow myself to really experience it, in the way I want to and not the way I feel I’m supposed to. If there’s one thing I’ve learned between the day I got off that bus in 1999 and sitting here on the airplane in 2019, it’s this: You never really know when you’ll get another opportunity to do something, so you might as well do it unapologetically your way. Dare I say it? Dare to dream.

Eurovision 2019 coverage is coming. Watch this space. And stock up on coffee and sandwiches. You’ll need them.

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1 Comment

  1. Shai

    Compliment for this article and for your writing in general👍
    You make it feel very real😁

1 Comment

  1. Shai

    Compliment for this article and for your writing in general👍
    You make it feel very real😁

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