How I discovered the wonder of Eurovision

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For some people, the Eurovision Song Contest is more than just a competition. This piece explores what this international phenomenon meant to one person and the relationship it developed with his mother.

It seems that everywhere I go people are getting excited about the new season of The Voice. There is vigorous debate about many facets of the show. Will Kylie Minogue’s seated grooving be as mesmerising as Delta Goodrem’s ostentatious “dancing”? Does Ricky Martin’s sculpted facial hair make him more or less sexy? Does Will.i.am actually understand the rules of punctuation and will KFC shilling ‘rocker’ Joel Madden devour an entire tree? I listen to them as they argue their various points and realise that I have no interest at all, for there is a more important music competition that is far more deserving of the public’s attention.

I am of course talking about the Eurovision Song Contest.

While this time-honoured competition is derided around the non-European world as an excuse to showcase generally bad singers, clad in tiny dresses fashioned seemingly from giant sequins, it is a competition that speaks to me on a much more personal level.

My mother introduced me to the Eurovision experience in 1991. I was sixteen and through pig-headedness, a mixture of living in a racist part of the world and an inherent personal need to fit in with my peers, I deliberately turned my back on my Croatian heritage. It wasn’t cool to be a wog in Red Cliffs so I did my best to not be one. I refused to listen to the music, wouldn’t speak the language with my parents (something I regret more than anything else) and did everything I could to be an Aussie; until 4 May 1991.

Despite being a teenage twat, I had grown closer to my mother. We would sit in the lounge room tucking into oblande or napolitanke (while I yearned to be Australian, I still loved the food from the old country), she sprawled out on the ramshackle couch, me on the floor.  I confided in her, shared with her the darkest secrets and wildest dreams that lay buried deep within, my father’s face buried deep in the racing guide, plotting on ways to “earn” the riches our family lacked.

It was a strange time, war had begun in Yugoslavia, and though I didn’t feel the effects of it, or understand it, I could see the tension and angst in my mother’s eyes when she read about it or watched footage of it on the television. I caught her once, sitting solemnly on the couch, a balled up tissue in her hands, trails of tears glistening in the soft evening light on her cheeks. I could not, still cannot, imagine the heartache that ravaged her when she watched her country fall apart from afar, or heard from her family or worst, when she didn’t. I do not know how many times she sat and wept in silence, I just know it was too many, which is why the evening of May 4 is one I will never forget.

That night, like so many others, we sat, drank tea and ate our sweets and talked. It wasn’t like usual though, she didn’t give me the undivided attention I demanded. I was talking to her about a girl I liked, one that ultimately didn’t have reciprocal feelings, and I needed her advice, needed her consolation, but she was distracted, expectant; and then she changed the channel to SBS (itself, a relatively new station for us) and the now familiar voice of Terry Wogan awoke her from her distant, catatonic state and she was alive. I continued blathering about my romantic woes but she shushed me and told me to watch, “I might learn something.”

And by God did I.

Over the next two, three, ten hours – I don’t know, it seemed to go on forever – I received an education. The first entrant, Baby Doll from Belgrade, had my mother incredibly excited. I remember she called up to my father to watch, somehow he roused enough enthusiasm to gaze at the glimmering box in the corner of the room, huffed something about “nice legs”, then went back to his paper; mum counted this as a win. Baby Doll, of course, was awful. She pranced about in a lurid swirl of blue material, trying in vain to sashay around the stage to a heinous amalgam of samba music and bad pop synth, her impossibly long legs holding my attention like nothing had before. Mum tapped me on the shoulder, eyes blazing with patriotic fervour and taking a bite of her wafer biscuit said, “she was good wasn’t she.”  I was incredulous. Little did we know that this would be the last time Yugoslavia, the country as she knew it, would exist, let alone enter Eurovision.

Join me, my mother and Terry Wogan as we watch Baby Doll perform “Brazil” at Eurovision 1991

The night wore on and as each beautifully horrific performance finished, I was changed irrevocably. I understood why she loved it so much. It was the best and worst of Europe in a giant cauldron of colour, drums and long legs and it was delightful.

Sitting together and watching Eurovision became a tradition, albeit a short one. Over the following two years, the war in the Balkans escalated and Yugoslavia separated, and I had somewhat returned to my roots, learning as much as I could about where my parents came from, what they had endured and why they left. All this time, my mum endured a battle of her own. It was on 14 May 1993 that we learned she had cancer and only had three months to live.

I’ve tried many times to capture the gravity of that weekend but I’ve never really been able to; there are no words to adequately describe the depth of emotion that we felt. That weekend was the first time Croatia had entered Eurovision as a country of its own. My parents, who identified themselves as Croats, would normally have been ecstatic, but no matter how good the entrant was (the answer is not very), they couldn’t muster the slightest hint of enthusiasm. Indeed, Put’s rendition of “Don’t Ever Cry” only made things worse.

That was the last time I experienced the glory of the Eurovision Song Contest with my mother; she died ten months later. In three short years, I felt the revelry of discovering something woefully wonderful, the comfort of sharing it with, at the time, the dearest person in my life, and the sorrow of knowing it would be the final time we’d ever share it.

So this Mother’s Day, as the most spectacular singing competition ever staged brings millions of people together, the joy, for there will be much of it, will be tempered with a touch of grief and the memory of the rediscovery of my heritage.

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