Friday, 29 March 2013

Thank pagan it's Easter!

Credible sources, such as fictional books, television shows and films, had taught me that this group of pagans was no doubt worshipping the devil and eyeing me off as a potential human sacrifice.

Still, I thought it was pretty brazen of them to be doing it in broad daylight and in the middle of a stone circle at Avebury, just down the road from Stonehenge.

Stone circle at Avebury

Dressed in cloaks and gathered around some stones they were pretty hard to miss.   They obviously weren't going for subtlety here.

Shouldn't someone call the police?

Avebury: popular with pagans
But it seems sacrificing me or a goat (always with the goats) wasn't on their mind at all.  Instead they had simply gathered to celebrate the autumnal equinox.

A local news crew had even arrived on the scene to cover the ceremony.  No doubt they thought this was going to be a much better story than the local flower show.

The henge at Avebury: enjoyed by tourists and sheep alike
For me, it was my first (and to date only) interaction with real pagans.   But apparently scenes like this at Avebury are pretty commonplace as today the site has been adopted by contemporary pagans as a sacred site.

Avebury is a neolithic henge monument consisting of three stone circles - including the largest stone circle in Europe.  Constructed around 2,600BC, there's a large henge (which is a bank and ditch) with a large outer stone circle and two separate smaller stone circles inside.

Stonehenge: Avebury's neolithic neighbour
Unlike Stonehenge down the road, visitors (and sheep) can wander around the field at Avebury, touch the stones and appreciate the effort required to build such a monument.   Why it's enough to make you feel in tune with the earth spirits yourself.

Believed to have been built for rituals and ceremonies, it seems not much has changed for Avebury.   In fact, after more than 4,600 years, the rocks at Avebury have never been hotter.

Avebury's sheep... or should that be pagan sheep?

Because various pagan and druid groups want to perform ceremonies at the site, a rota has been established.   This allows for groups like the Loyal Arthurian Warband, The Secular Order of Druids and the Glastonbury Order of Druids to use it on Saturdays, while the Druid Network and the British Druid Order go for Sundays.

Pagans are obviously a sharing bunch.

Avebury contains that largest stone circle in Europe
And Avebury isn't the only thing pagans have shared with us.   While Easter has been closely linked to Christianity, it actually has pagan origins.

In fact some of our ancestors were celebrating the (northern hemisphere) spring equinox, representing the end of the a "dead" season and "rebirth of life", long before Christians arrived on the scene and overlaid the story of Jesus' resurrection.

In many ways it's not such a subtle "borrowing" by Christianity, as the name "Easter" itself is derived from Eostre, the name of the Anglo-Saxon lunar goddess.

Two of Eostre's most important fertility symbols were the hare and egg - both available in chocolate and candy varieties for this weekend's Easter holiday.

Thank pagans for Easter and Avebury

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

You've got to sing it to win it

Beneath the white suits, glittery skirts and porcelain-white smiles there's a war waging.

It's that time of year when Europe (plus Israel) battle it out for the prestigious title of Eurovision winner.

But in many ways, this year's fight began a few months ago when competing countries started selecting the performers and songs to represent them.   The next phase of battle will occur at the semi-finals and final being staged in Malmo, Sweden, in May.

Like all good battles, a range of strategies (or gimmicks) have been deployed by all competing nations in their quest for Eurovision glory.

Sometimes these strategies work.  Other times they fail spectacularly.

Here are 15 Common Eurovision Battle Tactics:

1.  Resurrect Past Winners
Ignoring the old adage that lightening doesn't strike twice and deploying a previous Eurovision winner in the hope of history repeating itself.  (Note: it rarely works)   

This approach was most recently adopted by Germany, which chose 2010 Eurovision winner Lena (song "Satellite") to represent it again in 2011.   And you don't necessarily need to have won to get the call-up again.  Ireland used X Factor-rejects Jedward in 2011 and 2012, but failed to land the top prize on both occasions.

Germany's Lena in 2010 with the winning song "Satellite" 

And Lena again in 2011 with "Taken By A Stranger"

2.  Dare To Be Different
Bucking the trend by performing something different, quirky or unusual.  (Note: High chance of failure)

The Eurovision battlefield is littered with the glittery remains of those who dared to be different.  Over the years there have been puppets, transexuals, midgets, angle grinders, country 'n' western, and everything else you can cram onto a stage in three minutes.  But every now and then a unique act captures Europe's imagination, making the win even sweeter.

Finland's Lordi performed "Hard Rock Hallelujah" to take the 2006 Eurovision title

Everything old is new again: popular 2012 Russian entry Buranovskiye Babushki with "Party for Everybody"

3.  Shock and Awe
Injecting an element of surprise into your performance to keep the audience on their toes

Lithuania's 2012 entry Donny Montell managed to squeeze in two surprises during his performance of "Love Is Blind"; he started the song blindfolded and then ripped it off to do a one-handed cartwheel on stage.   Maybe he should have gone for the trifecta as he walked away empty handed.

Oh I get it... love is blind

A one-hand cartwheel into the audience's hearts

4.  Flashy Threads
Understanding that flashing your best assets on stage may not necessarily have anything to do with your vocal chords

From traditional folk dress through to dramatic costume reveals and on-stage costume changes, what you are wearing can play a big role on the night.   Ensuring your costume shows off your lovely set of pins, hefty cleavage or impressive pecs is all part of selling your Eurovision song.

Moldova's 2009 entry "Hora Din Moldova" by Nelly Ciobanu

Ireland's Jedward with their  2012 "Waterline"

5.  Keepin' It Real
Ditching classic Eurovision conventions, rules and trends, and charging on regardless  (Note: probably only your own country will appreciate this... and they can't vote for you)

This is a firm favourite of non-English speaking countries who, every now and then, say "stuff it, we're going to perform in our own language even if no one has a clue what we're saying".   The integrity is admirable, but rarely results in the top prize.

Translation dictionaries at the ready: Finland's 2010 entry "Kuunkuikaajat" with Tyolki Elaa

6.  Arty Farty
Trying to inject a touch of class to the event by displaying actual talent.  (Note: Europe's not interested)

France is often guilty of this, which could be why it hasn't won in a while.  In 2009, it offered the chanson "S'il Fallait Le Faire" by Patricia Kaas, while in 2010 tenor Amaury Vassili stirred with "Sognu".

France's 2011 entry Amaury Vassili flashes his vocal chords

7.  Club Anthems
Enlisting strong beats, electric sounds and catchy choruses to move the audience

A strategy which is increasingly rolled out at Eurovision, these countries are hoping their thumping track will be what clubbers will be moving to this summer.   But a word of warning, if there is an abundance of "anthems" in a given year they tend to blend into one another.

Sweden's Loreen powered to victory with her anthematic "Euphoria" in 2012

8.  Call In The Big Guns
Enlisting the help of famous entertainers from outside the Eurovision world hoping their reputation and fan base will bolster the entry's appeal.  (Note: Looks desperate)

Despite using this strategy a number of times in recent years, from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2009, reformed Blue in 2011, Englebert Humperdinck in 2012 and Bonnie Tyler this year, the United Kingdom has yet to find it successful.

Andrew Lloyd Webber co-wrote and co-performed the UK's  2009 entry "My Time"

9.  Mega Props
Filling up the stage with big, moving props giving the performers lots to do while singing.   Particularly useful in distracting an audience from noticing it's actually a pretty average song.

This is deployed by all countries from time to time when budgets are willing.   Memorably used by Greece in 2009 by Sakis Rouvas during the song "This Is Our Night" when he straddled something that resembled a giant stapler.   Investing in the prop probably did little to ease the country's debt issues.

Greece's "giant stapler" prop of 2009

10.  Topical
Forcing relevancy by making your entry so "now" it hurts.  (Note: you're history)

San Marino's 2012 entry Valentina Monetta went with "The Social Network Song", while Ukranian Svetlana Loboda sang "Be My Valentine (Anti-Crisis Girl)" in 2009, just months after the GFC began. Sadly, songs about topical events are usually relegated to the history books.

Valentina Monetta's "The Social Network Song"

11.  Popera Power
Combining the power vocals of an opera singer with a killer dance beat

A range of classically-trained performers have trodden across the Eurovision stage accompanied by a thumping beat and light show.    Often used in conjunction with Strategy Seven: Club Anthems.  They can either be uplifting or just plain loud.

The vocal acrobatics of Malena Ernman with "La Voix" represented Sweden in 2009

12.  Burn Baby Burn
Harnessing the fascination we have had with fire since we lived in caves.  (Note: you could get burnt)

Eurovision's health and safety officers are kept busy on the night as acts frequently deploy fire, fireworks and sparks to illuminate their act.   Finding a novel way to incorporate all things fire into the act now remains the key.  In 2010, Turkey had a lady dressed in a metal suit bounce an angle grinder off her arm creating impressive sparks.

Bright spark during maNga's "We Could Be The Same" performance in 2010

13.  Daze and Confuse
Leaving audiences wondering "WTF?"

Rarely a winning strategy, sometimes it seems this approach is embraced by countries that really don't want to host next year's Eurovision, but still want to turn up this year.

Albania's Kejsi Tola in 2009 with "Carry Me In Your Dreams": A blue man and two breakdancing midgets.  Make sense?

14.  Crank Up The Wind Machine to 11
Turning up the wind machine to literally blow the audience away.  (Note:  apply extra hair spray)

All countries are guilty of using this one at some point, particularly during the inevitable dramatic key changes during a song.  It can help add energy and excitement to a song and/or create some wardrobe and hair malfunctions.

Norway's 2010 entry by Chanee and N'evergreen' called "In A Moment Like This"

15.  Keep it Pretty
Distracting the audience with good looks

Eurovision doesn't just attract musicians, but also a fair share of actresses, models and others all vying for European attention.   However sometimes they aren't as easy on the ears as they are on the eye.

Norwegian model/singer Tooji performing 2012's "Stay"

Azerbaijan's 2010 entry Safura with "Drip Drop"

Norway's Alexander Rybak won in 2009 with "Fairytale"

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Finding Greta

My friend and I had hoped that we would just "stumble across" Greta Garbo's grave at Stockholm's Skogskyrkogarden.

Given the status of the Swedish-born Hollywood star we assumed her grave would be easy to spot, or at the very least there would be a signpost every three metres pointing us in the right direction.

But it wasn't long after we arrived at Skogskyrkogarden that we realised our assumptions were wrong.

This way to a the forest / cemetery maze where we would spend the afternoon

Calling Skogskyrkogarden a cemetery is a little like calling Buckingham Palace a "dwelling".   It's huge.   So huge it has lots of subsections of forested graves worthy of being cemeteries in their own right.   So huge it had a shuttle bus with bus stops.

So how to find Greta?

While signage was limited, we found cemetery sections which matched the right period for when Greta died.

The expansive entrance to Skogskyrkogarden
However, after a good 20 minutes of doing random sweeps along rows of graves we realised we were trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Somewhere in among the forest and cemetery was Greta
We thought we could possibly die there ourselves just trying to find the grave.   However, given it was a sunny autumn afternoon, and the calm and peaceful woodland setting, that might not be a bad thing.

A keen movie buff, my friend was determined to find Greta's grave.   Given the amount of time and energy we had devoted to the mission so far, I was also keen to track her down.

Many graves and many paths led to many dead ends

In life Garbo was famous for her elusive mystique and need for solitude.   It seems she had continued this trait after her death.

So my friend risked a hefty mobile phone bill when he got home by using the internet on his Australian iPhone to see if we could find any more details on where Greta could be hiding.

The best we could find was a picture of her grave, but that was enough to give us renewed hope and enthusiasm for our mission.   We could tell the headstone looked relatively new and was red, which we hoped would stand her out from the crowd.  There were also some vague instructions about being in a particular section on the left of a path.

Lost in Skogskyrkogarden
The next hour passed slowly. 

My friend and I split up to "halve the work" as we scoured the rows of headstones.   We then lost each other and had to text each other to find each other again.  The search resumed.   We then started forgetting where we had looked and so retraced our steps.   We pounced hopefully on any grave with a red headstone (of which there were more than you would think).

When all seemed lost and we were about to give up, my friend wandered up some steps on a nearby mound (to the right of the path, not left as the internet had advised) and sure enough there she was.

Greta's grave was the only one on this raised area, which was surrounded by flower beds.   In hindsight it seems obvious that she would be here - separate, but still connected to the other graves and with areas for people to sit and contemplate.

It is not a flashy grave and the absence of any other inscription, such as the years she lived between 1905 and 1990, seem to imply that Greta Garbo was simply a Hollywood creation played by the real woman Greta Lovisa Gustafsson.

Greta's grave

It's a peaceful and beautiful setting with an elegant but simple headstone.  Perhaps a fitting location and grave for someone who is forever linked to the line "I want to be alone".

Greta's grave, and the Skogskyrkogarden itself, is a short distance from the heart of Stockholm.  If you go looking for it you're probably better off finding someone else other than us to guide you!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Run like you stole something

There's a moment about five minutes into a race when I think to myself: "Why the hell am I doing this?!".

And after a few years of 10km races, half marathons and a marathon, I still have no answer.

All I know is that running, despite the sweat, soreness and pain, keeps me coming back for more.

Sometimes running the straight and flat roads can feel like this 

This weekend, my "2013 Running Season" (naming it this makes it seem much more formal and grand) begins with the Twilight Half Marathon in Brisbane.

It's called Twilight because, unlike most other races, it starts in the evening and by the time you finish it is well and truly dark (which can create issues in itself).  I've noticed that organisers like to give races fun names, such as "Running Festival", "Budgie Bolt" and "Mousdash", rather than more truthful titles, such as "Ouch", "This will hurt" and "You are going to feel this tomorrow".

The Twilight run will be a shake-up to my normal Sunday routine as I'm usually reaching for the bourbon bottle at this time, not roadside cups of water and hydration gels.  

Growing up I was never what you would call "sporty", though I was pretty good at swimming (it helped that most of the kids at high school were from the bush and couldn't swim).   Sadly I couldn't, and still can't, catch a ball to save my life so this pretty much ruled out any of the usual team sports.
When I was in my 20s I used to think going to the gym for 30 minutes four times a week and moving a few things around meant I was as fit as an Olympian, despite the fact that I could barely run 100 metres and inhaled two pizzas on a Friday night.

Sometimes when running I fantasise about stopping and sitting down
After I turned 30 I thought it was now or never with this whole fitness thing.   I had always thought I would be fit "one day", and now it was time to get serious.  No more messing around.

So I started watching what I ate, began to run a little bit and lost about 10kgs in the process.

At first I did just little runs, a couple of kilometres, never thinking I would be able to ever run more than 10km.  Over time though, the runs became longer.   I also discovered that achieving these little physical goals was quite rewarding.

Eventually I worked my way up to the first half marathon, thinking that would be the peak of my running life.   But after I had a few half marathons under my belt, I started eyeing off the big one, actually running the 42km of a marathon, something I had scoffed at just a year or two earlier.

Sometimes when running you hit the wall
Throughout all of this, I've learnt a few things about running (most of which every other runner already knows):
Running is the best workout I know
  • Running is sometimes hard and sometimes easy (and often my attitude is the reason behind this)
  • Running is about setting goals for yourself
  • Running is about finding motivation to achieve those goals
  • Running is about putting in the training rather than just "turning up on the night"
  • Running is about getting your pace and breathing right
  • Running is about forgetting how long you've been running and how far you have yet to go
  • Running is about forgetting that you told yourself you couldn't possibly do that
  • Running is about becoming comfortable with discomfort
  • Running is about strengthening the mind 
  • Running is about not making excuses
  • Running is about feeling euphoric (but only after you have achieved a goal or run across the finish line)

After a race or run, you feel like this (but with clothes on)

And most of all:
  • Running is addictive.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

My (brief) life as a crafty Christian

With the new Pope installed in The Vatican and Easter not too far away, it seems the time is right to make a shocking confession.

I had a brief flirtation with religion when I was in grade three... and craft made me do it.

Mosaic inside St Peter's Basilica: an example of Christian "craft"

You see most kids at my primary school were Anglican, which meant the weekly religious education class for that denomination was packed.  This also meant there were limited resources to do anything more than recite the Lord's Prayer.

Meanwhile, there only seemed to be a few stray Uniting Church kids roaming around and because that class size was more manageable they got to make cool Christian craft.

So I defected.

The Vatican aka Pope HQ: also home to some pretty nifty Christian "craft"
In what can only be described as the Christian equivalent of tunnelling under the Berlin Wall from East Berlin to West Berlin during the Cold War, one week I just started fronted up to the Uniting Church class.

Sure enough, this denomination defection became a slippery slope to other things.

Inside St Peter's Basilica: more "craft"
Before I knew it I was forcing my family to say grace at mealtimes, I was saying a prayer at night, and even making my Mum wake up early on Sunday to drop me off to Sunday school.   (Now, not that I was judging as I'll leave that to the Lord, but she only dropped me off and picked me up.   She didn't stay for the church part.  Just saying.)

Hell, I even attended a weekend church camp where I made a neat little knick-knack holder out of paddle pop sticks engraved with the words "Jesus Loves Us".

I was on a craft-fuelled religious high.

I wanted desperately to believe in it all.

The Late Pope John Paul II at The Vatican.  No doubt admiring the "craft"
Can you imagine how much amazing craft I would have created by now had I stuck with it?  Egg carton-crucifixes.   Multiple versions of mini-Jesus made from pipe cleaners.   The only thing standing in my way would have been access to a quality glue gun.

Unfortunately, my pragmatic side began to shine through well before grade three ended and I began to doubt the whole thing.   Not my craft abilities - they were indisputable - but the whole religion business.   I felt like I could only keep it up for so long.  It all just seemed so man-made and contrived; a bit like my knick-knack holder.

Don't get me wrong, I can see the appeal of religion.  No doubt it would be wonderful if there was a driver's manual for life.  The great unknown would be unknown no longer - or at the very least in the hands of someone more capable than ourselves.  A single deity, or many, watching over us from above. (God they'd be bored watching me - hope they've got cable television up there.)

Sadly, I just wasn't buying it.   And still don't.   Even the unveiling of a brand new Pope this week doesn't do it for me.

One of my brushes with religion: The Late Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Basilica

Not to say I don't appreciate the role that religions have played in the history of the world.   It seems much of the world's most amazing art and architecture owes their origins to different religions.   As an adult I've had the fortune to see some astounding examples of other religious "craft", such as those at The Vatican and elsewhere.

As an non-believer, I can also appreciate the similarities between many religions and how they have shaped different cultures.  I can see they were created to give people guidance and hope, and urge them to be "good".

And so perhaps the single best thing religion can give us is not something that any one religion actually owns exclusively; the concept of living a good life and treating others with kindness, love and respect.

Oh, and it can also give us some pretty cool arts 'n' craft as well.

Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's Basilica

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Where communist statues go to die

In the frenzy of revolution, history shows that pretty much anything associated with the former regime tends to be smashed, burnt or destroyed in the heat of the moment.

Budapest took a different tack.

It assembled in one place some of the communist statutes which had once been dotted around the city.

Lenin: keeping an eye over the park
Lenin showing the way: spotting a theme here?

The result, an open air museum called Memento Park (also known as Statute Park and Szobor Park), has become one of Budapest's most popular and surprising attractions.

During their time, these statutes were meant to inspire, educate, glorify, and perhaps even intimidate.   As befitting the ideology, the statues depict the loyal and hard-working proletariat, heroic soldiers, important communist events, and strong leaders.
Republic of Councils monument
One of the more dynamic statues in the park
"He's behind you!"

Today, they stand a fair distance from downtown Budapest; still striking their mighty poses under high voltage power lines and being unwilling accomplices in tourists' quirky photos.

Regardless of your ideology, it's hard not to appreciate the energy and artistry in some of the statues.

Monument to the Martyrs of the Counter-Revolution: a surprisingly evocative statue
But probably even more remarkable is that they still exist at all.    After the fall of the Hungarian communist regime in 1989, debate raged about what to do with these symbols of past oppression.

Some wanted the statues destroyed, but in the end they have been preserved and herded into the park as a representation of an important period in Hungarian history.

A worker cut out of the wall?

Red Army Soldier: with crazy eyes

Workers' Movement Memorial: he's got the whole world in his hands