Finally facing my Waterloo

When I was a little girl in the 1970s, ABBA was big. In fact, they were bigger than big, they were huge.

It’s fair to say that like most girls my age at the time, I was in love with ABBA. Specifically I was in love with Agnetha and Frida.

Four ABBA albums and three corresponding fridge magnets

Georgina from across the road would come over and the two of us would put my ABBA albums on and sing into our hairbrushes, pretending to be the two Swedish singers, who in our eyes were more beautiful and glamorous than anyone we could possibly imagine. Georgina would be Agnetha and I was always Frida.

After my friend Rachael and I left Denmark following Eurovision a few weeks ago, we made a beeline for Stockholm. The purpose: to visit ABBA The Museum.

Building with lights spelling out "ABBA The Museum"

What can I tell you? It’s not a huge space at all but ABBA The Museum is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. It comprehensively covers its subject in every way imaginable.

There were stories: who they were, when they met, when they won Eurovision in 1974, what happened next, and how they broke up.

Waterloo costumes

Fernando and Australia

There were mocked up sewing rooms full of fabrics, offices with memos, holiday houses that they worked in and dressing rooms in a mess.

There was memorabilia: costumes, a complete display of all records released, a display of many of the gold and platinum albums, and much, much more.

ABBA discography

ABBA gold and platinum records

ABBA the museum - costume gallery

cats costumes

But that’s not even the best bit. The absolute best thing about ABBA The Museum is that it understands and caters for its visitors. Throughout the museum there are interactive activities that allow visitors to participate in the ABBA dream.

You can be the producer that has a go at mixing a song to achieve the ABBA sound (turns out I’m no Quincy Jones).

You can sing and dance on stage as the 5th member of ABBA (I danced completely out of time but didn’t care).

You can ‘audition’ in a recording booth which scores your karaoke performance (Rachael and I sang together, and I use the term ‘sang’ loosely as we actually laughed till we wept at how bad our Australian accents sounded put together with ABBA’s music; we didn’t score well).

And you can have your photo taken and avatars created of all four ABBA members (but with your face) which you then dance as (I busted moves Bjorn would’ve been proud of).

Avatar Len

Basically ABBA The Museum gives the little kid in us the opportunity to go back in time and relive singing ABBA songs into a hairbrush and dancing like Agnetha and Bjorn, Frida and Benny, on a pretend stage in our living rooms.

In short, it was ABBA fan heaven.

I felt perfectly at home.

Four cut out figures of ABBA with Frida's face swapped for the writer's face

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Euro Visions

A few weeks ago I found myself in Copenhagen for Eurovision with my friend Rachael.

Eurovision 2014 stage in background and green room with performers in foreground

We’re both big fans of Danish TV (shows like The Killing and Borgen), and we both love Eurovision. So when Denmark won Eurovision 2013, Rachael began petitioning me and, despite having no regular employment and no idea how I’d pay for the trip, after two months of lobbying on her part I said yes.

Eurovision is much-loved in Australia. Over three nights, but especially during the Grand Final, people have Eurovision parties, compete to have their #SBSEurovision tweets appear during the telecast, and indulge in drinking games (Smoke machine? Drink! Male artist takes his shirt off? Drink!).

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - men in colourful suits

Still from live act - Eurovision 2014 - red and white traditional Polish design

Still from live act - stage shows words "I wanna have a moustache"

That Australians should love Eurovision so much is perfectly understandable given our European migrant history and our love of all things daggy. We love to laugh at the costumes, the props, the songs and the whole over the top aesthetic. For us Eurovision is utterly foreign and utterly hilarious.

But going to Eurovision is a very different experience from watching it on telly.

Absolutely the fun is still there: the fans who dress up, the festival atmosphere in the host city, the general excitement of an event as massive as Eurovision is (as well as the three televised finals there are another three family rehearsals and three jury finals).

Fans in Spanish and British flags

Fans in pink suits and hats.

Fans wearing sequinned clothing

Fans in red and white with drawn on beards

What is different, however, is the realisation that for the European fans, Eurovision is still an important song contest. The artists and performers are not trying to be over the top, or kitsch, or weird. That’s just how they are. And the music is the music of Europe. That’s what they listen to over there.

There are still a lot of fun elements. Interval entertainment for the last couple of years has included a comedy piece, usually the host city or nation poking fun at itself self-deprecatingly.

Ironically, given we’re a nation that loves to laugh at Europe, when the second semi final interval entertainment included a piece that poked fun at many Australian stereotypes, a lot of Australians back home cringed. “But that’s not what we’re like!” was the refrain on social media. As if the act was a serious examination of Australia’s culture and diversity. We’re always happy to laugh at Europe, it seems, but not so comfortable if Europe laughs at us.

Still from live act at interval of Eurovision 2014 semi final 2 - shows Michaelangelo's God and Adam clinking beers

You also get a far better understanding of how Europe chooses its winners when you’re there. Yes, there are a lot of politics and block voting going on in Eurovision. But countries that win rarely do so because their block voted them through. And countries that are not in blocks have won in the past, too.

Conchita Wurst, singing for Austria, was not the favourite going into the semi-finals. It wasn’t clear whether Europe was ready for a bearded drag queen diva singing a song that sounds like the theme from the next James Bond film.

Silhouette of woman on stage

As it turns out, they were. Overwhelmingly so. There is a great post on My Blue Danube that examines some of the politics behind Austria’s win.

I have now watched Conchita’s performance twice live and several times on YouTube and television, and have heard (and sung along!) with her song many times. So this is my take on Austria’s win:

Conchita gave an outstanding performance, never faltering once, with no props or dancers or musicians on stage to distract from her. Mostly standing still, her only movement was to raise her arm dramatically at the chorus.

Woman in gold dress on stage, arm extended upwards

Which brings me to the song. Let’s just recap part of the lyrics:

Waking in the rubble

Walking over glass

Neighbors say we’re trouble

Well that time has passed



You wouldn’t know me at all today

From the fading light I fly


Rise like a phoenix

Out of the ashes

Seeking rather than vengeance

Retribution

You were warned

Once I’m transformed

Once I’m reborn

You know I will rise like a phoenix


Conchita sang this song for all the LGBTI men and women like her who had been put down in life and told they weren’t normal. The people who believe, as she said in her winner’s speech, in peace and freedom. In unity.

But the song is bigger than one individual. As she sang, all underdogs saw themselves in Conchita’s song. And that included European underdog nations who are waiting to rise like a phoenix from the economic ashes they find themselves in.

How else to explain why Spain, Italy and Greece – known more for their macho, if not entirely homophobic, culture – all gave Austria 12 points?

Conchita Wurst singing for Austria captured the zeitgeist.

The voting score board at Eurovision 2014 and a woman wearing a fake beard on screen

Many of the fans we met at Eurovision asked us if this was “our first Eurovision”; they had all been to several. I can understand the addiction, though of course it’s much easier when you don’t have to travel from the other side of the world to get there.

I found Eurovision exhilarating but exhausting, too. Going to all three televised shows was pretty full-on.

On the other hand, now that I’m home and some time has past, I find myself thinking about Eurovision 2015. After all, I’ve always wanted to see Vienna….!

Rachael???

Boogie Fever

“Dance is the body at its maximum.” – George Balanchine

Before I started writing compulsively, before I wanted to be a paperback writer, there was dance. Dance was my first love.

I was about five or six when my mum took me along to ballet classes. I was enthralled. It was like learning a secret language that your entire body could speak. It totally captured my imagination.

young girl in bright blue leotard and headband posing with arms out

I can’t tell you how long I attended but I know it wasn’t too long. We moved house to a suburb far away and I was so shy that the idea of having to make new friends not only at school but also at ballet terrified me. When Mum asked me if I wanted to take it up again in our new suburb I said no.

It wasn’t the end of dance in my life though. I was already growing up with dance in my home. My parents had music on all the time and it was not unusual for us to break into dance – whether Greek or otherwise – at any point in the day. My mum could be cooking and a song would come on and she’d down tools and start dancing, grabbing me along the way. Dad was the same.

I absolutely adored musicals, not for the singing but for the dancing. Gene Kelly was the love of my life; I was sure I was going to marry him when I grew up. Singin’ in the Rain was my favourite film until I was in my early 20s and it’s still in my top five. It’s funny, it’s romantic and the dancing is spectacular.

Movie poster from the film Singin in the Rain - two men and a woman in yellow mackintosh raincoats and with umbrellas

These days I listen to a lot of music and no matter what I’m listening to and where I am, I’ll dance. I often dance around the house with the music blaring when I’m cleaning, cooking or even ironing. If I’m in my car, my fingers will tap, my head will nod. I just can’t help it.

I hang out for opportunities to dance with friends and family, be they New Year’s Eve parties, weddings, milestone birthdays or anything else.

One of my favourite TV shows is So You Think You Can Dance. What I love about it is that it exemplifies, in popular format, but not without art and grace, the power of dance to tell a story or express emotion, whether sorrow, passion or pure joy. And the dancers themselves inspire me. Dancers are everything you admire about elite athletes but with art thrown in.

As with other TV talent shows there is always the possibility of an unforgettable moment on each episode. The first one that really took my breath away was a short jazz routine of exquisite artistry choreographed by Wade Robson in Season 3. Two amateur dancers symbolising a hummingbird and a flower dance to perfect music in a piece that both delighted and moved me. Since then I have been delighted and moved many, many times.

The joy of dance can be contagious. One of my favourite clips on YouTube is the Sound of Music mob dance that was performed at Antwerp Central Station in 2009. The expressions on the faces of the onlookers are priceless, as is the reaction of some people who, despite not actually being part of the organised ‘mob’, begin to dance along as well. Dance is like that. It draws you in.

(And if you have any doubts about whether dance can make you laugh, check out the “Stavros Flatley” routine from a past series of Britain’s Got Talent.)

The other day I was stopped at lights in my car. Across the road from me a young man in a t-shirt, shorts and runners was waiting to cross. He had his headphones on and was dancing as he waited – and I don’t just mean nodding his head or swaying his hips a little. I’m talking about full on, out there dancing. He was clearly in a disco wonderland of one, clearly not self-conscious and utterly oblivious to anyone else around him.

I couldn’t help but smile as I caught his very obvious joy. I turned to see if the driver in the car next to me had also noticed him but the young woman I saw at the steering wheel was in her own disco wonderland, not only singing along to whatever music she was listening to but also swaying her head vigorously and gesturing with her hands in what I can only describe as a Saturday Night Fever way.

What can I say? I turned the music up loud and began to dance. Boogie fever had a hold on me.

Man in white suit on dance floor striking dance pose

A Feast for All Senses

I think it’s pretty obvious from my last post that with its beautiful cities and magnificent sites, southern Spain has been one giant visual feast. But it hasn’t just been a treat for the eyes; all my senses have been stimulated on this trip.

Let’s start with taste. I love the gastronomic adventure of eating the local cuisine in a country for the first time. I’ve eaten such great food this last week that it’s impossible to pick just one highlight. Everywhere we went there was amazing food. I ate the most amazing paella at Las Lapas in Seville, followed up with a fresh pear for dessert which was quite simply the crispest, most delicious pear I’ve ever eaten. At Bandolero, a tapas bar/restaurant in Cordoba we tried the salmorejo, a traditional cold soup made of tomato, bread, garlic and olive oil and served garnished with small pieces of ham and boiled egg. Loved it. They also served us the most amazing oxtail in broth with roast potatoes; the meat falling off the bone, the potatoes cooked perfectly, the broth so addictive that I couldn’t stop mopping it up with my bread.

The other tapas we had was at Los Manueles in Granada. Their spicy beef strips and potatoes were melt in the mouth divine, while the thin slices of fried eggplant served with a sweet sauce that was halfway between honey and a thick maple syrup was a taste combination that sounded strange but worked perfectly.

Right to the end of my trip there were little surprises that made my tastebuds sing with joy. The buffet breakfast at the NH Porta Barcelona, the hotel at which I stayed on my last night in Spain, included pears poached in red wine and cinammon that had a subtle spicy sweetness; in short, to die for.

My ears were treated to a feast of sounds in Spain, from the flamenco guitar and accordion played by buskers on the streets to the loud roar of the Mediterranean at the beach in Marbella to the sounds of people speaking Spanish all around us. A treat for me was in the cab ride I took from the airport in Barcelona on my first day. The Girl from Ipanema was playing in the cab when I got in. This was followed by Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine, and that was followed by a traditional gypsy flamenco piece with a strong female voice plaintively singing the Spanish blues. It was such an eclectic mix that I knew even when I asked the driver if it was his iPod and not the radio that the answer would be yes. I told him it reminded me of my own wide and varied musical taste and it was a special little moment of connection.

For the sense of touch my highlights ranged from the simple pleasure of feeling the warm sun on our faces as we ate lunch outdoors in Seville and Marbella to the luxury of being treated to a pedicure and a massage at the resort spa before we left. I also managed to get a 45 minute swim in at the resort’s indoor pool and it felt fabulous to be in the water again. I used to swim every week once upon a time but realised as I did my laps in the small pool that I hadn’t swum like that for 15 years. There’s something about being in water that makes me feel very, very relaxed and happy. Maybe I was a fish in a previous life.

And lastly to the sense of smell. Everywhere we went there were orange trees full of fruit. In every town the main square was called Plaza des Naranjos and there’d be dozens of trees, but they also lined the main streets, and appeared in courtyards big and small. Not only were they extremely pretty to look at but the scent they gave out was just lovely. When we came out of La Mezquita Cathedral in Cordoba, there was a small team of people collecting the oranges in huge plastic bags. The scent in the air was so strong. We were told that the sour oranges are not edible fresh but were given the impression that they’re used to make marmalade for the English. I like to think that’s true.

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