Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jumping joyfully into JESC

Apart from working online as a freelancer at a laughable hourly pittance for (mostly) small business-owners for the first two years of living in Geneva, my luck finally changed.

My CV had languished on a desk at EBU for a week or two but was still fresh enough in their minds to be called in when they found themselves reeling from redundancies and a couple of unplanned 'don't let the door hit you on your way out' firings as well.

A frantic month of making up for the past eleven on a project criminally left idle from a freshly-departed staffer found me doing crazy hours, making up strategies as I went along and somehow pulling it together right at the very end.  It was a 'big' job for a recognisable organisational name that breathed new life into my ratty old resume.  After enjoying every moment and seeing some locally-earned money in my bank account, I went back to life as a humble word wallah and tutor for a few more months.....

.......until I was called in again to "have a chat with Vlad. He's Russian and he might need your help."  Not because he was Russian, but because there was a nearly-dead and much neglected event called The Junior Eurovision Song Contest that he'd been asked to revive. Was I interested in being Head of Press to his Executive Supervisor?  Is chocolate my favouritest food in the entire world and I even dream about it...?  OF COURSE I'd love to help him!

From July to December we battled bruised egos, passive aggressive angst from the old owners and a lot of 'No' answers to reasonable requests.

In spite of this we had an incredible team of volunteers - Luke, Ervin, Alexandro and Luis, with Jan and Stijn generously offering their help too. Twelve countries participated (up from the seven we started with), and a couple more came along to check out the event and went back home with surprised smiles on their faces.

Being a mother of a (then) fourteen year old stood me in good stead when asked to adjudicate on the Code of Conduct, safety of the kids and the costumes.  "If I don't want Sapphire to do it or wear it, then I won't want any of these kids to either."

Arriving in the host city of Kyiv*, Ukraine in late November it was freezing cold, dark by 3pm and the Euromaidan takeover of Independence Square was starting.  Our tour bus - available for the children, their carers and the journalists covering JESC - drove past it several times.  Students had lit fires in old petrol drums and were roasting chestnuts.

There was an air of confidence and celebration about it.  Then.  "Ukraine has had sixty seven revolutions in its lifetime," the guide proudly informed us via her microphone. "You are now looking at number sixty eight."  The bright blue and sunny yellow of the Ukrainian flag were hung over scores of apartment balconies and shop fronts, and many of the local crew checked out the happenings at Independent Square at night on their way home.  One even found love there whilst on a romantic stroll with a girl who was helping out a visiting delegation.  

The serious violence had not yet occurred, but a couple of changes had to be made. Ruslana, the revered Ukrainian firebrand singer who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003, was supposed to appear as a special guest.  The one rehearsal that she did attend showed how exhausted she was. Night after night she had been singing, demonstrating, dancing and supporting all the protesters; and decided that the political cause quite naturally outweighed the JESC one.  No-one disputed her decision.

After all, what kid aged between 10-15 would remember who won Eurovision a decade earlier? They were much more excited to meet that year's winner - Emmelie de Forest - who did attend and very graciously and kindly chatted to the kids together and individually for as long as they all wanted.  

The second change involved the then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich.  He was going to appear at the concert and maybe hand the winners their trophies.  With the Palace of Arts Ukraina facing huge housing blocks festooned with flags and slogans, we weren't surprised that he was a no-show.  Relieved, yes.

It was ten days of long hours, incredible kids, awe-inspiring parents and teachers, generous local television hosts and friends that I'll remember forever.

Perhaps I'll let the photos do the talking.... 

The Press Centre 'office', or corner of the arts centre that was used for all kinds of USSR big-wig shenanigans back in the day.  Full of underground tunnels and dodgy corridors, with six flights of stairs to run from Vlad's office to mine.  Hence the walkie-talkie I'm speaking into.  The Australian flag was loaned to me by SBS's Alistair Birch who offered kindness, friendship and the best advice ever.

Some of the amazing team. By this stage we were all sleep-deprived, sweaty and had cracked lips from eating crap food on the run.  Operating mostly on joy and adrenalin.  One journo here was so overawed during the tour of backstage that she wasn't aware of the chaos around her and was inadvertently knocked down by a Cossack dancer riding a Segway.  Surrealism and hilarity at its best.  She was uninjured which saved a lot of awkward paperwork.

Any of these people can ask for a blood transfusion, bone marrow or a kidney. That's how close we became.  

The winner for Junior Eurovision 2013, the wonderful Gaia from Malta.  She was a guest at the 'big' Eurovision song contest in Copenhagen last month and it was brilliant to have her call out "KATH!" and share a big hug.

Second place went to sweet Sofia from Ukraine and third to the irrepressible Ilya Volkov from Belarus.  His delegation had their rooms next to mine in the hotel and the boy did. not. sleep. He and his female back up dancers used the luggage carts to race up and down the hallways. His Head of Delegation, Olga, was worried that I was sticking my head out to complain, but I just laughed. "Who WOULDN'T want to do that at age eleven?  Or 45 for that matter?"

Olga asked him, on the last day, what treat he would like to have. "Would you like a scooter or some football gear or a computer game?  It's my shout: you deserve it."
He thought for a moment and said, "A tube of sour cream and onion pringles would be nice."

A selfie taken that was emailed to Sapphire and LC.  The first time I've ever been classified as A1.  It was hard to stop looking behind me: would an enormous shepherd's crook appear from Stage Left, with a booming voice saying "We've found you out. Off you get," and haul me off?

....I did do a bit of work, though, and it was a slight challenge to have the production crew start to pull down the Press Centre - while we were in it - to protest their lack of payment for six months from Yankovich's government.....  Vlad's Russian and natural charm shone through - a hug, some intense discussions over coffee and vodka and a stern letter drafted by me and signed by our Grand Poobah did the trick.

Surreal moments abounded.  Timur (on the left in the photo above) is a huge star in Ukraine and was very confident, funny and polite.  The same goes for Zlata who is also revered for coming third with her song 'Gravity' at last year's Eurovision Song Contest.  Going over the script meant that I was asked to help out with some of the pronunciation of unfamiliar English words.

"So, er, how do you say this - er word - 'hobbit'?"

It was a real thrill to prove the nay-sayers wrong.  The kids were allowed to be kids: why would we want it any other way?

Rustam just HAD to touch the background wall - and why not.

I lost my voice due to cheering during and after each-and-every song and rehearsal.  The talent, the enthusiasm and the genuine happiness that all of the kids had in participating was quite inspiring.

Ewan Spence sometimes had a bit of trouble managing his star interviewer, Terry Vision. No alcohol or illicit substances were permitted at JESC but sometimes too much chocolate and sugar + not enough sleep was too much for a stuffed puppet....

The talent of the adults working hard behind the scenes was humbling.....

.......Not to mention the ability of Russian men to drag out a tired old Aussie lady to drink TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW until the sun came up....!  On the night of the final, my sins caught up with me. I was talking to someone, felt suddenly very queasy and dashed off to have a long loud chat on the white porcelain phone.  Making my way back to the Press Centre, I purchased a bottle of coke (the real stuff, not the diet stuff I'd been used to for the past twenty years), chugged it down and jumped joyously back into the fray again....

Magical things happened.  Here we see a ten year old boy from Azerbaijan spontaneously dancing at the after-party with an eleven year old Armenian girl.

Both countries' legendary emnity has resulted in dropping the alphabetical order method at all international events so that both 'A' nations needn't catch a sniff of the other.  Not at JESC. They danced and everyone clapped along and cheered.  

Sure, there was a lot of careful editing of the thousands of comments that appeared on Facebook the next day, but 99% of them were genuinely moved and very very positive.

The worst thing about JESC was being the last person to leave.  Vlad, the terrific team, the local crew and all of the performers had left by lunchtime, and I sat in the empty breakfast room with stinging eyes.

Until the two darling girls from Georgia - Tamta and Mari - spotted me and gave me one last hug.

Not every kid got to win and some were in tears afterwards but I hugged and promised them all that they would never ever be forgotten. It wasn't just for one night on a single TV show.  We would support them by following them as they grew, did more performances or whatever other news they (with carers' permission) wanted to share.  JESC mothering for ten wonderful days had been an absolute honour and not one that was going to be dropped the second the plane landed in Geneva.  The kids - and everyone working to support them - deserved better than that.  

After they left, I cried a little bit more.

As a footnote, we have indeed adhered to our promise.  Each kid who participated has been in regular touch with us (and via their carers/parents) and have featured on our Facebook site. This page was set up and run by the previous administrators of JESC for five years with 23,000 followers.  Ten months on and the numbers are now edging 75,000.  

* NOT 'Kiev' - that is Russian spelling from the bad old USSR era.


Elephant's Child said...

HUGE congratulations. And stinging eyes.
You have been A1 +++ in those self same eyes since first I found you - and how nice to have it recognised by those with more status, power and influence.

River said...

Oh my goodness! The FUN!!
and the work too, which looks quite challenging, but there isn't a single photo showing you stressed, so clearly you've found your niche and I hope it continues for many years.
I love all the photos, the sleeping puppet, the two kids dancing, the final hug for you, I love everything about this.

MedicatedMoo said...

E-Child and River, you've made my eyes sting again. What a pleasure it is to be writing this comment to you on the train to Zurich which is taking Vlad and I to Malta for the next JESC meeting. Dreams do come true.

Anonymous said...

I had a little back reading to do, and enjoyable it was. What a terrific effort and you should feel some self pride.

Pandora Behr said...

I've been following this on your facebook page, but WOW!

Fen said...

I am a complete Eurovision tragic, so this post made me so very happy. What a blast!!

MedicatedMoo said...

You're very kind, Andrew. It's a 'project' that is so much more - fairly quiet for a few months and then a 24/7 obsession. In a good way.

Wow, indeed, Pandora. And writing this in Malta, where the next edition is going to be held in November is also another WOW!

Fernstar, there's another post coming about my Eurovision job this year...... I cried when those two wonderful weeks ended too!

Kay Tee Em said...

I have always just let Eurovision pass me by, but your Facebook updates about JESC peaked my interest and I tuned in this year. HOOKED! Completely and utterly hooked. I've got the album with all of this year's songs - and your little cheesecake mate is a regular ear worm. Not sure whether to thank or curse you.

MedicatedMoo said...

Thank you Kay Tee Em - have now got to find the time to write about the 'big' Eurovision....

tracy said...

Kath, what a fabulous story. Thanks for sharing it with us xx

diane b said...

Well done Kath. Congratulations on a job well done. It sounds like you missed the worst of the violence that is occurring there now. I hope so anyway. I can just imagine you mothering all those kids. Hope you get more work like this.

wilbo43 said...

I had always enjoyed the adult ESC when I was living in Switzerland, but many years in Oz where it is not popular and quite frequently ridiculed, had its toll on me too. But you have renewed my interest and next time it's on on SBS (if the mad monk doesn't sell the SBS), I will watch it again. Never knew there was a junior version. Do we see that here in Oz?

Jackie K said...

Wow that is an amazing story. I've only just read it now!?!
You clearly did a fantastic job, and yes, there was buzz around Junior Eurovision which I'd never heard if before.
So great everyone involved obviously took their care of the kids very seriously. Sounds like it will only grow. Well done!

Ann ODyne said...

oh Bravo dear Kath. I loved every word of that you Star.
and you survived Late Night Wodka with Russians! I have too - in a Camperdown motel with mad Moscow vets who came to study cows.
I hope your expertly-composed terse letter resulted in cash for your colleagues, and that all your new friends are safe.
"67 revolutions" is why Australia seems a safe haven for tired people to head for.
Love to you from snowy Ballarat 2nd August 2014

Hannah said...

Wow this is fantastic. What a brilliant time! The work looks so challenging but truly rewarding.