Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Eurovision Song Contest and me

The Eurovision Song Contest plays a strange role in my, Eric's, life. It was, in fact the start of my now decades-long Scandinavian quest. In 1968, a few months before the Russians crushed the Prague Spring (which I also saw live on TV), one Kristina Hautala sang a song in a language I had never heard of: Finnish. Nor had I heard of Scandinavia.

The song, which can be listened to on YouTube here in Finnish, or here in Swedish (the latter of which I have heard for the very first time this morning, 17th May 2009), was called "Kun kello käy" and "Vänta och se". At the Eurovision, held that year in London, she only sang it in Finnish, hence my initial interest in that language. But observant people will notice that she is called "Kristina" not "Kristiina". The Christian name or forename is an almost infallible guide to whether someone with a Finnish surname is a Finland-Swede, or at least has one Finland-Swedish parent. Although in Hautala's case, she spent her childhood in Sweden, so that may have had more to do with her forename.

What fascinated me was not so much the singer, who, after 41 years looks strangely childlike there rather than sexy, but the Finnish diphthongs. It led me to borrow my first ever Finnish primer from Shirley branch library, a small and very ordinary public library in the Midlands, UK: "Finnish For Foreigners". There was no degree course in Finnish at the time, so when I had to choose, a few years later, I chose Swedish instead. These two languages have played a role in my life to this day, not least because when it came to doing my year abroad to practise the language for my Swedish course at the University of East Anglia, I ended up in Åbo (Turku), not in Sweden. The rest is history.

Last year, several of us sat in a small room at the Writers' and Translators' Centre on the Swedish island of Gotland watching the Eurovision Song Contest. One of those present was the Finland-Swedish novelist Kjell Westö. I would never even have heard of Finland-Swedes, were it not for, indirectly, the Eurovision Song Contest, forty years previously.

After that piece of self-indulgence, back to 2009. Well, the Finns did catastrophically, coming last. The big Swedish blonde didn't charm voters despite her powerful opera voice (I voted her top, along with the British singer). And the young Norwegian with the Alastair Darling eyebrows won the day. So whether that talk with the Russian that David mentions did the trick, we will never know.


Harry said...

That's the first credible justification of the Eurovision Song Contest that I have ever read. I don't think I've watched it since Sandi Shaw won with "Puppet on a String". Or if I have, the memory has self-erased.

I saw a photo of the winning "Norwegian" in this morning's paper, and when I saw his name in the caption, Alexander Rybak, I realised he was a Slav - as Rybak means "fisher(man)" in Czech and Polish. In fact he's Belorussian. Sandy Fisher. Could almost be a Scot. The Norwegians will be hoping they have now erased the "nul points" stigma for ever.

I once asked the Nordic historian Stewart Oakley how he got into
Scandinavian Studies in the first place. Stewart was a very refined and scholarly gentleman of the old school, so I wasn't prepared for his admission that he was impressed by the Swedish au-pairs he encountered while a student in Cambridge, and decided to get into their ... ahem, language ... in order to impress them.


David McDuff said...

I realised he was a Slav - as Rybak means "fisher(man)" in Czech and Polish.

And also in Russian.

David McDuff said...

from Wikipedia: Rybak was born in the former Soviet Union in BSSR. He and his parents moved to Norway, where he grew up, since the age of four.

Harry said...

I'm very fond of the rather wistful, sentimental "Povídky Malostranské" (Tales of the Malá Strana) by the Czech writer Jan Neruda. One of the stories, "Hastrman" (The Water Sprite) features old Mr. Rybárˇ(an alternative form of Rybak, 'fisherman'). He follows strangers heading to the observation point on Castle Hill in Prague, and when they exclaim at the view, he shakes his head and says, "Dˇjó, morˇe! - Procˇ nebydlíme u morˇe!" (Ach, the sea! Why don't we live by the sea!").

It always amuses me that landlocked Czechs greet each other in the street with "Ahoj!" as if their friend was another vessel hoving into view.

They make up for not having a sea by camping out by their lakes and rivers at the drop of a hat, fishing, canoeing, anything that makes a splash.


David McDuff said...

The Czech connection is certainly interesting, Harry. Though the thing that still bothers me about the show last night is that Rybak gave his speech of thanks in flawless Russian, with no trace of an accent at all...

Eric Dickens said...

When I saw that some Ivan from Moscow had written in the Times, I think it was, that Rybak was a Roosky, I looked him up on the Wiki and also found out that Аляксандр Ігаравіч Рыбак is a Beloroosky instead. So I commented in the Times replies to that effect. One in the eye for those eager to colonise everything that moves in Eastern Europe.

Rybak's parents are musicians, his father a leading violinist. In Norway he studied under the Russian-Jewish professor Isaac Shuldman, and Rybak played the Fiddler on the Roof part the musical.

Despite hacks describing the song as gypsy music, I reckon that it's a mixture of Norwegian folk tales and Jewish music. But some journos prefer to eschew the "j"-word.

David McDuff said...

For Russians, Rybak is "our guy"... doesn't matter if he's from Belarus, Norway, Estonia, Israel, wherever.

Eric Dickens said...

I remember Stewart Oakley well. He was at UEA when I was an undergrad. I didn't have many lectures from him, because I did mainly literature, and he was a historian. But he seemed a kind enough soul. I've always wondered whether the CNN journalist Robin Oakley is his son.

With regard to the sexual attraction dimension of studies, when at UEA in the early 1970s I rather fancied a young lady of Polish provenance, and I thought that maybe all Polish women were like her. So I ended up getting a one-year scholarship to Kraków, without even knowing the language. Thirty-three years later, this same lady turned up at a translation workshop I gave in London last year. My Polish is still not all that it might be, but she has now gone into literary translation from that, her parents' language.