This was meant to be a piece about the Eurovision final. And in a way, it still is. Although in life, as in writing, you never know what fate has in store for you, and oftentimes the story you set out to tell turns out to be very different to the one you wind up telling. Just as in travel, where despite all of the planning you might do, you never know where the truly meaningful experiences lie in wait. Sometimes you don’t even know they’re happening until after they’ve already happened.
Six weeks ago, I traveled to Israel to attend the final of the Eurovision. Because if you know me, you will know that I absolutely love Eurovision. Most of my friends shake their head in disbelief at this bizarre obsession, but I don’t care and once a year, every year since I was thirteen, in around May, I go into a Eurovision-induced frenzy. For about three weeks I busy myself with reading up on contestants, ranking my favorites, and prepping for watching of the annual live broadcast. I just can’t help myself. And this year fate conspired to push my Eurovision mania to new heights: the final was being held in Tel Aviv, with Australia being one of the hot favorites to win. So I just had to be there.
Now, on the basis that there are actually people in this world who don’t know what the Eurovision is (usually Americans, what can I say?) here is a brief intro (lifted from a previous Eurovision post I wrote five years ago – to read it in full, click here).
In 1956, some bright sparks at the European Broadcasting Union had an idea to foster European unity post WWII. They would stage a Song Contest. It would be called “Eurovision”. Each country would submit an entry to be performed at a gala event broadcast live across the continent. A jury of “experts” in each participating country (and more recently the general public as well) would vote to choose Europe’s favorite song of the year. The winning country would then automatically be appointed host nation for the following year’s contest, where the whole extravaganza would be repeated again (Israel won the 2018 contest, which is why the 2019 edition was held in Tel Aviv).
So basically, Eurovision is a sixty-year old singing contest, a European prototype for American Idol, or The Voice, albeit running since long before these were ever a thing. Although in Eurovision the songs are only a small part of it, and what was a simple idea has grown into something far greater than anyone could possibly have predicted way back in 1956. Because the Eurovision has become an annual phenomenon in Europe – part national pride parade, part talent show, and part unmitigated cheese fest. Like with the Olympics, host countries use the event to shamelessly showcase themselves. And like with modern-day talent shows, the winners of Eurovision can become instant superstars. On the other hand, Eurovision losers can often be painfully, hopelessly, entertainingly bad.
Over the years Eurovision has spawned some genuine mega-stars, like Abba (1974 winner for Sweden) and Celine Dion (1988 winner for Switzerland). It has now been broadcast for 63 years straight, which according to the Guinness Book of Records makes it the longest running television show on earth. It is also one of the most widely watched non-sport events on the planet, with a global audience of about 500 million. Although given that the population of Europe is about 500 million, basic arithmetic suggests that the only ones watching Eurovision are, in fact, the Europeans. Perhaps explaining why outside of Europe it is generally unheard of.
Except, that is, in Australia, a country of migrants, that over the past century has welcomed newcomers from everywhere to its shores, including folks from all over Europe – the UK, Italy, Greece, the Slavic and Baltic regions, etc. The Special Broadcasting Service, or SBS, is an Australian government-funded TV channel that broadcasts local language content for the country’s diverse migrant communities. And a highlight of the SBS annual calendar has always been its live telecast of the Eurovision. As a result, Eurovision has developed an almost cult following Down Under, at first watched mainly by “ethnics”, but in the last 20 years more widely adopted, initially by the gay community and then beyond. Such that nowadays watching the Eurovision has become cool and quirky and kind of trendy in Oz.
Given the massive local audience, five years ago the SBS applied to the European Broadcasting Union for the right to send an Australian participant. The fact that Australia is about as far away from Europe as it is possible to get was conveniently overlooked, perhaps because Australia’s initial entry was meant to be a bit of a novelty act. But it proved so wildly popular that Australia has been invited to continue sending an entrant ever since.
I could go on – I have a whole library’s-worth of Eurovision trivia and statistics to share. But I have said enough to explain why, as a nerdy teenager in Sydney, I was able to experience the joy and drama of the Eurovision song contest, half a world away. And also why I have stuck with it ever since: a confirmed Eurovision devotee for more than three decades, and across four continents.
Anyway, my Eurovision experience in Israel was truly spectacular – better than anything I could ever have hoped for.
I managed to purchase two tickets from a reseller to the sold-out live final, which owing to time differences around Europe was scheduled to start at 10pm and run until 2am. I went with a friend, and as we walked from the car park to the venue, the crowds built, and the atmosphere intensified. We were surrounded by people from all over Europe in sparkly costumes, waving flags, many with their faces painted in national colors for the occasion. I stopped to take a photo with two visitors from Australia. They were dressed in full kangaroo outfits, were dispensing Tim Tam biscuits to the passing crowd, and had Aussie flags pinned to them like capes.
As we made to enter the arena, there was a problem – the usher scanning my tickets told me that they were fakes and therefore not valid. I almost collapsed on the spot. But then I called the reselling agency I had purchased the tickets from in London, and (somewhat unbelievably) ten minutes later they emailed me valid replacement tickets. Only the replacement tickets were, quite literally, the best tickets in the house – front row in the “Golden Circle”, an elite seating section that is actually a cut-out part of the stage and therefore almost part of the show itself. Clearly, the Eurovision Gods were determined that I should have a great experience.
This meant that when the show began I was right up the front, so close I could reach out and touch any of the performers had I wanted to. In the Golden Circle I was crammed in alongside about five hundred other folks – mainly gay guys, all hard-core Eurovision fanatics, and hailing from across Europe. And everyone was, quite literally, going mental.
So when a part-time dentist representing San Marino took to the stage to sing, cardboard cut outs of loudspeakers were passed around, and the whole place went nuts, dancing and mock-singing along. When the Italian contestant performed his Latino-inspired rap, it was like being in a mosh pit. When the Spanish number – an impossible-not-to-sing-along-to piece of bubble-gum pop – was played, 20,000 people in the crowd erupted as one, and it felt like we had magically been dropped into the middle of carnival in Rio. Israel’s performance got three minutes of sustained, thunderous applause, the whole audience chanting the singer’s name again and again.
Australia performed second last, and I took that as my cue to go totally bonkers, waving my flag and singing along horribly, although no-one noticed over the noise and the lights and the spectacle of an Aussie singer flying through the air, defying gravity. Madonna – gay icon extraordinaire – came on stage dressed as a pirate, a special guest performance just before the results were announced, and it was like being in an Evangelical church, the crowd descending into a frenzied rapture that was borderline religious.
And when the Dutch entrant was announced as the winner, a six-foot-three man-mountain from Holland who was standing next to me lifted me clean up off of my feet, and planted a big fat kiss on my forehead. Never mind I didn’t know him from a bar of soap. And never mind that he was decked out in black hot pants, a glitter-sequined tank top, and Elton John style glasses….
In short, I had a blast. Tel Aviv put on a world-class event, to rival the best Eurovision shows from times gone past. I danced with strangers, I sang along like an out-of-tune lunatic, and I waved my Israeli and Australian flags for five long, fun-filled hours, until my arms ached and my voice was hoarse. I got all the campy glitz, glamor, color and noise, odd performances and weird dance routines I was expecting. And in the process, I fulfilled a life-long dream: to attend a Eurovision final in person. Plus I got to do that in Israel, the country of my birth.
It was, quite simply, one of the best, most fun nights of my life.
My mother, Sheila Naomi Uliel, passed away last week, on the 11th of July 2019. She was 69. A merciless illness – leukemia coupled with all the side effects of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation – had done its worst. After four years of valiant fighting, my mom – “ma” as we all called her – finally succumbed, her vibrant life cut short cruelly, unfairly, and way too soon.
I was in Australia when I got the call from my father in Israel. My youngest brother had just arrived there from Sydney, and my other brother was already on a plane from Los Angeles, on his way to Tel Aviv.
“Your mom is back in the hospital, and the doctors have said that there is nothing left to be done for her,” my dad said. “They say she will pass away in the next 2 or 3 days. Her systems are failing, she is barely conscious, and she is on morphine. The hospital can put her on life support if we request it, but that will only be to keep her alive until you get here – there is no more hope.”
It is a call we all know we will get at some point in our life, yet it is a call for which no-one is ever really prepared. For the past four years our family has lived with the constant specter of my mother dying. But until that very instant, it had never been something real; until that call from my dad, it had never seemed to me like something that might actually happen. Yet in an instant the possibility of my mom’s passing went from being a vague background noise to something certain, concrete, and imminent. Despite everything, I wasn’t ready for the news, and I howled like a baby.
My immediate reaction was to rush to the airport, jump on the first flight to Israel, and get there before she passed. To have one more chance to hold my mother’s hand; one more chance to tell her that I loved her. But then I spoke to my youngest brother, who had minutes before returned from the hospital where he had done just that. He told me that our mom’s condition was very bad. She was essentially in a coma, unable to communicate or recognize anyone or anything, and even if I left Australia that moment there was no assurance I would get to Israel in time (in the event, I would not have made it). He said: “You were here a few weeks ago. You saw mom then. Maybe keep those memories instead.”
And as he spoke the words, my mind immediately turned to the last time I had seen my mother, six weeks before, while I was in Israel for that Eurovision weekend. I had stayed for four nights at my parents’ apartment in Ra’anana, a quiet, leafy town about 20 minutes’ drive north of Tel Aviv. I had initially thought of staying in a hotel in central Tel Aviv, closer to all the Eurovision action, but in the end I’d opted to stay with my folks.
This meant that on the morning after the Eurovision final – my last full day in Israel before I left to return to work in London – I was able to watch a rebroadcast of the show on TV with my mom. She sat on her armchair, a frail old lady, her body battered from years of treatment, with a blanket over her knees. I sat alongside her, providing a running commentary, explaining all about the various songs and how it had been to watch the performances live, and from time to time trying to point myself out in the crowd.
My mother loved creativity, in all of its forms. She was a talented sketcher, and her house was always filled with her various ceramic and mosaic creations. She was an avid reader, and from a very young age encouraged me to read everything I could, and to write my thoughts down. From her I learned to play scrabble, and how to do crosswords – a daily ritual that has become an integral part of my life. She was also a great cook, and taught me my way around the kitchen, and how to enjoy food – my obsession with food on my travels owes much to her.
Most especially, my mom loved music. She was always singing or humming some or other tune. She played piano by ear since she was five, and kept at the keys almost until her last day. Ever since I can remember, a piano always took pride of place in her home – always in the living room, an essential part of life more important than the table or the chairs or the refrigerator. So today, I too have a piano in my home. I hardly use it, but it would be unthinkable to me for it not to be there.
And even though at times growing up my brothers and I were far more interested in parties, girls and sports, my mother absolutely insisted that her three sons be exposed to the beauty of art, culture and music, almost from the moment we could walk. Which is why, as a child in 1970s South Africa, I was the only boy in my weekly speech and drama classes. And also the only boy in weekly art classes, learning to paint and draw while my friends were out playing cricket and rugby. Which is why, as kids, my brothers and I had to take mandatory piano lessons, often begrudgingly, for years on end. Which is why, as teenagers, my brothers and I had to don jackets and ties against our will, so that we could accompany our mother to more operas and symphonies at the Sydney Opera House than I can count.
And which is why I watch Eurovision. Because my mother absolutely loved the pomp, ceremony and musicality of it all, long before it was trendy or cool to do so. She watched it every year, which meant that every year I’d watch it with her. It was an annual event, a part of our shared calendar that I came to love and appreciate, and which once I left home in my twenties I continued on my own. Now my kids love the Eurovision as well. Thanks to my mom, their grandmother, it has become a tradition I share with them, too.
So watching Eurovision with my mom that day, six weeks ago in Israel, was nothing new. Rather it was something comfortable; something we’d done many times before. True, on this occasion she sometimes dozed off, and sometimes her mind wandered to a place that made sense only to her. But mostly she was with it, and with me, along the way expressing her disapproval for the Israeli entry (“it is so boring”), liking the Australian entry (“I still don’t understand why Australia is in the Eurovision?”), and disagreeing strongly with the choice of eventual winner (“I can’t believe that song from Holland won. It should have been Norway!”).
After the show was done, my mom took a nap, and when she awoke a few hours later we pushed her wheelchair into the garden. We positioned it in her favorite spot, in the shade of a lemon tree she had planted herself, ten years ago. There she stared at the sky and the trees, slipping in and out of awareness; sometimes falling asleep only to snap awake suddenly to comment on some small detail of the show we had watched earlier. And most of the time, eyes open or shut, she held my hand.
I had thought that getting to finally see a Eurovision final, live, in Tel Aviv of all places, was one of the greatest experiences of my life. But, as it turns out, it has paled into insignificance compared to the experience of watching a TV rebroadcast of the show the next morning, unshaven and in my pajamas, on a couch, in a suburban Israeli apartment, tired from coming in late at 4am and desperately in need of a coffee.
Because even if I didn’t know it at the time, fate had preordained that to be the last day I would ever get to spend with my mother, watching a singing contest together just like we’d done when I was 13, and 23, and 33. Talking, comparing notes, enjoying the music, marveling at the spectacle, and laughing at the stupidity of it all.
And, really, fate got it perfectly right.
You see, even though my heart is breaking as I write this, I know there is no other way I would rather have spent my last moments with my mom. Doing something familiar, and in which I got to enjoy a whole morning of her infectious, slightly childish laugh, her deep and abiding love of music on full display. Then simply sitting side-by-side in her beloved garden, surrounded by her beloved mosaics, in her beloved Israel, enjoying the early summer warmth as we discussed the show and laughed some more. And where for a brief, wonderful few hours I was cocooned one last time in my mother’s unwavering love. No son could ever have asked for more.
Goodbye ma, you can rest in peace now. Thank you for all you did for me. Thank you for all the music. I love you and I will miss you forever.