My time in Germany began on an inauspicious note: After a long day of driving through Eastern Europe, I arrived in Frankfurt and collapsed into bed only to be rousted moments later by the sound of a man vomiting outside my window. Imagine my delight when he proceeded to purge the contents of his stomach over the course of not one, not two, but three more installments before blundering off into the night. Fortunately, I was on the third floor, well out of nose-shot.
Aside from those few wretched moments (pun intended!), my stay in Frankfurt was a delight. My German friends Sebastian and Sarah graciously welcomed me and Danielle into their apartment and later took me on road to trip to Dresden and Berlin.
On Danielle’s first night in Germany, the four of us went out to a local bar to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, which is basically the high school talent show for all of Europe. The contest has taken place every year since 1956; prior winners include Celine Dion and ABBA. Each European country sends a single musical act to compete; all must be first-time artists. An early elimination round trims the number of contestants from 39 to 25, and the remaining acts perform one song each at the internationally-televised final competition in the capital of whichever country won the previous year’s competition. At the end of the performances, millions of Europeans send in their vote via text or phone and points are awarded by country – a sort of musical electoral college.
This year’s contest took place in Oslo, Norway, but the host country’s musical act didn’t make the final cut. At the bar in Frankfurt, the buzz centered around Lena Meyer-Landrut, a 19 year-old German singer who represented the country’s best hope of winning the contest for the first time in 28 years. Her hit “Satellite,” a charmingly annoying ditty sung in English with an accent that seemed to be a mix of German and Cockney (“Ay even bought neew undaweyah for yew, dey blue / I wore ‘em just the otha daey!”) Even before the contest, the song was garnering gobs of radio play across the continent. In France, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic, I heard Lena’s song more often than hits from Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and the inexplicably popular Owl City.
The 2010 edition of Eurovision included Azerbaijan’s endearingly literal rendition of a song about a lucky apricot stone (accented by a giant apricot-colored stone in the background), Serbia’s surprisingly flamboyant bass-thumping extravanganza, and Spain’s performance by a Malcolm Gladwell look-alike, interrupted mid-song by a fan who hopped onstage and danced with the group for about thirty seconds before being discreetly escorted away by security. Greece’s offering – a song called “Opa!” performed by a guy who looked like Bruce Willis dressed as a Backstreet Boy – drew a few chortles from the German crowd (“This is what they bought with our bailout money?”).
The most enthusiastic response was reserved for Lena, whose performance of “Satellite” earned frequent eruptions of “prost!” from observers at the bar. As soon as the last song ended, hands rushed to pockets and cell phones (or “handys,” as the Germans call them) lit up all around the room as SMS voting began. Fifteen minutes later, the televised results started filtering in – all across Europe, makeup-drenched television anchors stood in front of illuminated monuments to announce which act had earned their country’s points.
Lena jumped out to an early lead, and despite symbolically low vote totals from France and Israel, she easily defeated the very corny song from Denmark. The next morning, a photo of a victorious Lena graced the front page of Der Spiegel. Sitting atop a car, her underwear was conspicuously visible, emblazoned with the motto “I LOVE BOYS.”
The rest of the afternoon in Frankfurt brought something a bit more somber: We went to an exhibition where visitors are led around a pitch-black series of room by blind guides for an hour in order to experience the life of the sight-less. My initial feelings of claustrophobia gave way to both frustration and curiosity as we walked through an unseen park, navigated a mock street, and even ordered drinks at a bar staffed by blind waiters. Needless to say, it was a powerful experience with the intended effect of conveying how easy menial tasks are for the sighted – crossing the street or finding the correct denomination of bill to pay for a drink, for example.
Afterward, we journeyed to a traditional apple-wine bar where the mood, but not the food, was much lighter. I tested my intestinal fortitude with all matter of German dishes ending in “wurst” and “schnitzel,” most notably a type of meat whose name translates to “blood sausage.” Remarkably, I avoided the fate of the gentleman whose gastric distress I overheard on my first night in Germany, and even managed to knock back a few pints of Bavarian beer before calling it a night.
Next up: Berlin and Dresden.