Kiwi things Part Three

Some things I love

Auckland Airport: AKL isn’t a massive airport. And the domestic terminal is more than a big daggy. But the international terminal is great—particularly for travelers with Air NZ Gold status. The Premium check-in is chilled, efficient and friendly. There’s a wee elevator lift to passport control. And once you’ve been scanned and inspected, the Air New Zealand Koru Club lounge is just epic. Departing from AKL transforms the start of a long international journey. With more airlines adding AKL to their schedules (Philippines Air announced this week), hopefully it won’t lose it’s particular vibe.

Comedy culture: The sense of humour here is fabulous: from bone dry to coarse AF. Thanks to TV shows like 7 Days, comedians have opportunities to transition from comedy clubs to telly.

Deaf MP Mojo Mathers shreds the panel whilst lip reading (Source: YouTube/7 Days NZ)

And then there’s Rose Matafeo. Seriously this women should will be a superstar. Her show Funny Girls takes on topics like sexuality, reproductive rights, and sexism:

Several of her bits have gone viral. Like this one (Source: YouTube/Funny Girls)

Anthem: God Defend New Zealand has a great melody, starts in te reo and being in Eden Park when it’s belted by 40,000+  people is amazing. This is perhaps my favourite rendition:

Listen carefully, always be kind, thank you (Source: YouTube/Hayley Westenra)

Cawfee: This is a country that does espresso very well…usually. We’re spoiled, in fact.

 

Things I don’t love

Auckland Airport: Arriving at AKL’s international terminal isn’t a horrible experience, but it can be surprisingly lame. To be fair, the automatic gates are brilliant and the luggage sometimes arrives very quickly. The problem is biosecurity. No, not the principle of biosecurity: how it’s operationalized at AKL.

Some aircraft movement at AKL (Source: YouTube/AirFlowNZ)

Generally NZ citizens and residents (anyone with a resident or permanent resident visa) are treated equally in terms of public accommodation. Since Australians are granted automatic permanent residence upon moving to NZ, they are too. But for biosecurity (a/k/a quarantine) the queues are for NZ/Australian citizens and All Other Passports. So Australians arriving as tourists are prioritized over people who live here. More importantly, there are not enough x-rays or space for inspections: it gets backed up very quickly. After a 13 hour flight it’s no fun and also not an efficient way of protecting the local ecosystem.

Voting as a resident: In many ways being a permanent resident of NZ is like being a citizen of some other countries. You can move overseas for 5 or 20 or more years and still come back (it really is permanent). And you can vote after a year. Which has troubled me, even as I’ve exercised my franchise. My parents’ drilling into us that voting is a responsibility trumps whatever my thoughts are about non-citizens voting. On balance I think permanent residents should be able to vote in local government (“municipal”) elections only…to enhance citizenship more.

Betty II: I have been here before. When I became a Canadian citizen I had to swear allegiance to “her majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second and all her heirs and successors.” Still pisses me off. Now I get to do it all over again: either I stay a permanent resident or swear allegiance AGAIN to that old lady in London to become a citizen of New Zealand. If nothing else, I’m doing so to facilitate the move towards a parliamentary republic.

I would swear allegiance to Graham Chapman (Source: YouTube/obviouslyFAKE2)

I love the Commonwealth, however—and think Ireland should rejoin it. Being a member of the Commonwealth does not compel a country to make (or keep) the sovereign as the head of state.

Investor-bloated, under-invested housing market: Overseas investors and “migrants” are often scapegoats for Auckland’s housing crisis. And it is a crisis: for owner-occupied first homes estimates are that tens of thousands of new “homes” (houses, condos, what have you) need to be built to catch up with demand. Factor in that the City of Sails is the preferred destination of newly arrived migrants—Auckland is the engine of the NZ economy after all, and job prospects are best here—and the neoliberal divestment of social housing by both Labour and National governments, and you get a squeeze also on rental accommodation. There is no rent control and no real minimum standards for rental properties either: even with our high income I struggled to find anything livable when I arrived in Auckland in 2012.

Are there overseas investors parking some assets in NZ? Yup: it’s a boom market and unlike other places, there’s few impediments to doing so. Are migrants buying up houses and pushing prices up? Yup: if you had the resources to do so, so would you. But what is really skewing the housing market are the finance system and the taxation régime, particularly a wee thing called negative gearing. Until recently, banks would allow people who live in their own home to take out 100% mortgage on additional properties. That made it super easy for people to buy properties as investments. Negative gearing allows you to achieve significant tax relief so long as the rents collected do not cover your expenses as the landlord. In other words, buy on credit, lose a bit of money in terms of operating costs, get a tax windfall as a result.

As a result there’s investors gobbling up properties that first home buyers normally might. There’s also lost taxation that could go to actual services like healthcare and (ahem) social housing). Which visionary party will get rid of negative gearing? None that want to win an election. So many people are property investors here—many, to be fair, who have perhaps one single investment—that they are a voting constituency that is both massive and non-partisan.

That’s it—the end of my series–this time next week I will be a kiwi! I’m very happy with our life here in Āotearoa. And five years have flown by!

[You will find Part One here and Part Two here]

Kiwi things Part Two

Some things I love

Rugby: It’s a sport where the referee’s job is to keep the game moving. It’s as much a code for life as it is a sport. There’s a position for a range of body types. It’s not often boring. More than a few hawt men doesn’t hurt either. Himself and I have been members of Auckland Rugby for three years now, which is excellent value compared to hockey or football. We just need Radio Sport to ensure their commentary never lag behind the live action—because without the commentary I lose track of what’s happening very quickly.

Pukeko: I suspect if you grew up in NZ these birds are unremarkable to you. Fair enough. I did not—and I love these birds. En route to work there’s a wee field where several mamma pukeko have been teaching their babies how to find bugs. Aside from being beautiful, they reject sexist gender norms, which is rather awesome. Don’t mess with ‘em, either: they give zero f00ks.

Pukeko. (Porphyrio porphyrio).

What a beauty (Source: Flickr Bernard Spragg

Air NZ’s tech integration: Air New Zealand gets the whole technology thing. Their ID management system captures most things relevant to a traveller’s experience. Your frequent flyer Airpoints are adding to your account almos

t immediately after any flight of theirs you take. Their smart phone app not only lets you check-in and generate a QR boarding pass…the bloody thing invites you to order your coffee for pick up in the lounge. If you have lounge access. All of which warms my nerdy nerdy heart!

Lorde: No, really. I got here just after Royals had taken over the New Zealand and Australia airwaves. Whilst Pure Heroine only scored a couple of hits in the rest of the world, it was all-Lorde-all-the-time for about my first year here. Ella’s fairly assertively avoiding celebrity culture makes her rather likable…but when David Bowie says your music “sounds like the future” you’re probably entitled to lose your mind a little bit. Which seems to have happened over the last couple of year:

what fuck are perfect places, anyway? Genius. (Source: VEVO/Lorde)

If anything, Lorde’s follow-up Melodrama shows she’s been doing a somewhat ramped up version of the transition to young adulthood that many of us have (sex, drugs, music). And she’s coming out of it more than OK.

 

Things I don’t love

Hypermanagerialism in higher education: I have attended college university in Canada and the US. I have worked at universities in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The paperwork burden is 2-3 times what I’ve experienced elsewhere. And committees! All the committees! More committees! I am not being churlish towards my colleagues—nearly all of whom are awesome—but many have no idea that much if it’s unnecessary. There’s a lot of intellectual and creative capital being squandered.   Which is in no one’s interests.

Air NZ North American hegemony: Until last year, there were only two airlines with non-stop services between New Zealand and Canada or the US. Hawaiian flies between Auckland and Honolulu, but they’re not on my frequent flyer scheme. Air NZ flies from Auckland to Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston. Their pricing reflected this near monopoly. Then American Airlines started flights here from LA (suspended already until spring), followed by United from SF (also suspended). Prices started to come waaaaaay down. Thankfully they’re a decent airline.

An earlier safety videos…less polished but more heart (Source: YouTube/68mnap)

Low tax régime: Putting aside my archetypal willingness to pay taxes if the value proposition is strong (social democracy, anyone? Buehler?), income taxes here are too low. How low? Take a look:

Income Tax rate Effective tax rate
Up to $14,000 10.5% 10.5%
$14,001 – $48,000 17.5% 10.5-15.5%
$48,001 – $70,000 30% 15.5-20%
$70,001 or more 33% 20-33%

The Canadian brackets are:

Income Tax rate
Up to $45,916 15%
$45,917 – $91,831 20.5%
$91,832- $142,353 26%
$142,354- $202,800 29%
$202,801 or more 33%

The US brackets are:

Income Tax Rate
$0—$9,275 10%
$9,276—$37,650 $927.50 plus 15% of the amount over $9,275
$37,651—$91,150 $5,183.75 plus 25% of the amount over $37,650
$91,151—$190,150 $18,558.75 plus 28% of the amount over $91,150
$190,151—$ 413,350 $46,278.75 plus 33% of the amount over $190,150
$413,351—$415,050 $119,934.75 plus 35% of the amount over $413,350
$415,051 or more $120,529.75 plus 39.6% of the amount over $415,050

While the progression vary quite a lot, both Canada and the US are both more progressive—and expect top earners to pay a fair bit more on their largesse. Granted, NZ has a simplified tax code, so not as many deductions or write offs. But the US isn’t trying to run a health care system or public university system either. A couple of percentage points more of taxes on people earning the highest income ($100k? $125k? $150k?) would have a transformative impact on NZ.

We can afford it.

Click here for Kiwi Things Part One

Kiwi things Part One

Symbols and ritual matter to me. Maybe it’s because of a Catholish™ childhood where symbolism was vivid and (sometimes empty) ritual was common. Maybe because I’m hopelessly sentimental. Or maybe because I’m not at all intuitively adept at understand quotidian interactions between people. I’m all about meaning…and understanding…and finding common ground.

For high school and university college, I was rather cynical about the whole graduation thing: short of marginally fulfilling a neurotic need for external validation (am I smart? Please tell me how smart I am? I got nothin’ else on the go), convocating was more terrifying than anything else. No, not the ceremony, the part that comes after: leaving the cocoon for the big bad world.

But I’m almost entirely looking forward to the citizenship ceremony. Aside from that maddening pledge to those inbred caged “royals” who’ve never lived here (or Canada or Australia or India or…). If you’re a monarchist, that’s fine: I’m a republican.  And I look forward to the day when all the Commonwealth members select their own individual heads of state and consign this tired cache of symbols to the archives. So there.

As I get closer to becoming a New Zealand citizen, I’ve been reflecting what I love and don’t love about this marvelous wee nation. This is the first of a series that I’ll wrap up on 25 August, the day I swallow my self-righteous indignation pride and take my (non-religious) oath. These are in no particular order.

Some Things I love

Māoriness=Kiwiness: yes there are racists here and yes colonization has left carnage in its wake. But comparing NZ to Canada, Australia or the US, the importance of Māori culture here is impressive. Hundreds of words from te reo used commonly.  The first verse of the national anthem sung in the language. The haka. This is still my favourite song:

There are two free-to-air TV networks focused on Māori culture, perspectives and language, one of which is mostly broadcast in te reo.

Transparency: New Zealand often is ranked first or second for transparency. To many people this is about government bureaucracy—and my experience with the NZ government has been uniformly transparent—and mostly very efficient. In fact, from considering the move here, to applying for a residence visa, everything was as it appeared to be. The rules for the medical exams were spelled out and freely available online. If you would never be approved because of a medical issue, you could save yourself months of time and thousands of dollars.

But it goes deeper than that. Aside from school holiday periods—where many things in NZ slow to a crawl—the Prime Minister appears on pretty much every live TV and radio morning news show once a week. So does the leader of the Official Opposition. And they get grilled:

In NZ it’s considered essential for politicians to “front up” to the media when there’s an issue. It’s fab.

Innovative social marketing: There’s a problem with drink driving here (like many places in the world). So there’s a series of ads, like this one:

Legend. And this one about binge drinking:

And this one about getting the munchies. These are not actors:

But all is not perfect here…there is no perfect place.

Things I don’t love

Booing at rugby during penalty kicks and conversions: Seriously. Anytime the opposition is kicking for points, Kiwis boo. Cringe. Especially when parents encourage their kids to join in. Sportsmanship, anyone? Play hard, play to win, but this is such an anomaly in Kiwi culture: people here are usually awesome.

Housing quality: We’d been here before. We did our homework. We spoke to friends and family whanau here. So we were expecting to find some dodgy stuff. We didn’t expect that dodgy was the norm, especially for rental properties. Being two mid-career professionals earning a very good living meant we could choose from the best of several problematic apartments to rent. Shopping to buy a place meant eliminating 90 per cent of most condos (leaky building, no insulation, weak strata/body corporate frameworks). For buying a house, it meant finding something nice with zero insulation. None. And people have been living in this place—including the newborn of the immediate previous owners—for 50 years.

Two tiered healthcare: Canada ruined me—it’s almost impossible to queue jump in Canada if you have money (unless you travel to the US or some other country). That’s the way it should work. The NZ system is predicated on people who have money accessing a much nicer, polished up series of private mini-health systems. When I needed urgent surgery the public system was great; during follow up I too often waited 6 months or more for an MRI…unless I was willing to shell out $1,000.00. Mind you, many prescriptions are only $5 for a three month supply. I also pay $60 every time I see my GP, $25 for prescription renewals…I’ve morphed from quietly seething to breathing deeply. But I worry about what genuinely poor people receive, care-wise.

Enough moaning…people here hate whingers.

Closing in on kiwi

In May 1992 I was able to fulfil a childhood dream and visit Australia. Nanny, my paternal grandmother, almost chose Australia over the US and was very excited about my trip “I’ve always wanted to go there!” she told me over the phone. In my eyes Nanny is was pretty much perfect, so anything that she loved I loved too. This is the woman who gave me my love of pretty much any raw vegetable. I still eat almost a kilo of raw carrots every week. If Australia entranced her, it would entranced me.

There was a wild colonial boy…

The Aussie trip was a package tour for travel agents (a “fam” or familiarization tour) sponsored by Air New Zealand. Our itinerary was set by our hosts: en route to Sydney and Melbourne we would be stopping in Rarotonga (where?) and New Zealand (sheep?). The itinerary ran for 14 nights including the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Australia. When you’re in your mid 20s and a seasoned backpacker, this was not an unappealing (or undoable) itinerary. Even with a couple of 12+ hour flights to survive.

After two brief, glorious days on Raro, we arrived in Auckland on a rainy autumn morning…and were promptly loaded onto buses towards the Waikato (where we each had a one night farm stay). Over the course of that week in New Zealand—we visited Rotorua, Christchurch, Milford Sound, Queenstown and Mount Cook Aoraki—I kept thinking “I could live here.”  Australia, while nice, was a bit of an anti-climax. Though I made sure to focus on the highlights with Nanny.

Po atarau (Māori Farewell Song). Rendered our group a blubbering mess

A bit more than 20 years later I arrived at Auckland Airport at the crack of dawn—really Air NZ, WTF with all the 5am arrivals from Canada and the US?—along with three large suitcases, two carry-ons, and a newly validated resident visa. My wonderful sister-in-law Julia and nieces Sophie and Lucy insisted on meeting me at the airport, even though the university had pre-arranged a transfer to my hotel. After hugs I gave her my hotel address and we met there for a beverage and a chin wag. After doing some running around that morning (banking, tax registration, phone sim card, uni IDs), I met Michael and Brian and Grant for dinner.  Until it was time for me to collapse on my bed with jet lag.

It’s not quite been five years since that morning:  in a month’s time I’ll be attending citizenship swearing ceremony. Part of my negotiation with the university was my getting a residence visa up front: this took a couple months longer than the “work-to-residence” visa most academics get—but I’ve been down this road before and wanted to apply for one visa only, rather than having to repeat the process (and expense) a year or too later. Like clockwork, I ensured my initial visa restrictions (three months after arriving) and upgrade to permanent residence were applied for the first date I was eligible.  As I did for my citizenship application.

Something so strong is…carrying me this way

Why? Not keenness to become a Kiwi citizen. Perhaps the most obvious difference between being a citizen or permanent resident is the ability to run for office. Residents in New Zealand can even vote. There’s not difference in terms of taxation when owning property between a resident or citizen either. For many, the benefits for going that extra, final step are unclear.

I love NZ and I’m happy here: I wouldn’t apply for citizenship if this wasn’t the case. But that’s not the main driver to my becoming a fully legal kiwi. It’s more a fundamentally queer mistrust of government.

One step ahead of myself?

The bald reality is that citizens are treated better than non-citizens…and in most proper liberal democracies citizenship cannot be easily taken away from a person. Current developments in the US sort of underscore this for me: times change and so do governments. Lock me in ASAP please. The expenses involved, which add up to about $1,000 to get from permanent resident to citizen (including the first passport), amortized over 20 or 30 years are still good value.

Migration is a privilege, not a right. New Zealand was under no obligation to allow me to settle here. Remembering that is important. I am grateful.

Eurovision 2017: the prequalified entries

This is yet another wholly subjective, non-empirical assessment of the six entries from year’s Eurovision that are pre-qualified for the Grand Final:

  • The “big five” countries that foot most of the budget for the Contest: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the
  • This year’s host (and last year’s winner) Ukraine

No run sheet
Until we know who has qualified from each semi-final, we will not know where most of the entries will be performed on Saturday night. The exception is Ukraine, who have already drawn 22nd. The rest of the performance order will be “produced-led”.

Country

Artist

Song

France

Alma

“Requiem”

Germany

Lavina

“Perfect Life”

Italy

Francesco Gabbani

“Occidentali’s Karma”

Spain

Manel Navarro

“Do It for Your Lover”

United Kingdom

Lucie Jones

“I Will Never Give Up on You”

Ukraine

O. Torvald

“Time”

Shall we jump and discuss the entries and their prospects? I think we shall!

  •  Spain: There is a fair bit of vitriol targeting this entry—mostly related to drama at the Spanish national final. In reality there were no entries in that competition that were any better than this. If you like Jack Johnson, but performed by a younger, ostensibly whiter Catalonian, you will like this. Not much here for jurors; how much televoters might go for it remains unknown (he was a distant third in the national final televote).
  • Ukraine: Last year Ukraine had two strong entries, one of which triumphed in Stockholm. This year the offerings in their national final were a bit thinner on the ground: the result is a serviceable pop rock song. Good song, decent production, not great English diction from the lead singer. As in 2005, don’t expect the hosts to trouble the top 10.
  • Germany: Lavina beat herself for the ticket to Kyiv. No, really. In the German national final, a series of votes on artists and songs led to both Lavina entries competing head-to-head. This is really polished pop performed by a really polished singer. And yet, it doesn’t register with me very much. Perhaps there will be something in the staging to make it stand out?
  • UK: This year the Beeb integrated a jury vote into their national final and managed to pick the right entry. This is a very good song sung by a stunningly good singer. It has pedigree too: one of the co-authors won the Eurovision for Denmark in 2013. Many of my British friends are being too pessimistic on this one—I see this in the top 10 overall. Regardless, it’s the first British entry to scream “vote for me” since Blue. Plus, Lucie’s not likely to bone the jury final the way Blue’s lead vocalist did. 
  • France: A new head of delegation shook things up in France last year in all the right ways—resulting in a top 10 result with the public and the juries. A different artist with a similarly contemporary song (with some shared authorship with J’ai cherché): instead of Amir’s cheeky hawtness we get Alma’s proper Parisian classy hawtness. Another top 10 result seems likely. Vas-y donc!
  • Italy: A song entirely in Italian, chopped mercilessly from four minutes to three, with cerebral, thoughtful and wistful lyrics. Given that there’s only been one winner entirely in a language other than English since 1998, why is Occidentali’s Karma the prohibitive favourite? The song and orchestration are Italian pop music at its best: this one grabs your attention. Francesco Gabbani is good looking but warmly so. Within 60 seconds the audience is singing along on the chorus. Then the gorilla appears. Seriously. This works on so many levels and could be one of those global non-English language phenomena like Gangnam Style.
  • In case you did not notice, I’ve written these reviews in order of where I think each entry will be ranked by the end of the Grand Final—in terms of the scoreboard, not my own preferences. If three Big Five songs end up in the top 10—and only our second ever Big Five winner—that would be excellent for the Contest.

But if you are curious…my rankings of the entries, in order of personal tastes:

1. Italy

2. UK

3. France

4. Germany

5. Spain

6. Ukraine.

Eurovision 2017: Semi-final Two review

This is yet another wholly subjective, non-empirical assessment of this year’s other (second) Eurovision semi-final. This semi-final will be:

  • Shown live Thursday 11 May (early on 12 May in New Zealand and Australia)
  • Feature 18 entries
  • Draw its participants from half of 6 “pots” to eliminate minimize possibly reduce the impact of neighbourly/diasporic/cultural point padding
  • Have 21 countries voting: the 18 competing tonight, along with France, Germany and hosts Ukraine (the other pre-qualified Grand Finalists will have voted in the first semi-final)

All competing for 10 spots in this year’s Grand Final. As in 2016, this year the jury and televotes from each voting country will count equally. However, no scores will be announced…just the top 10 qualifiers, in no particular order. Except that somewhat magically the last qualifier is always one designed to ramp up the tension: if you’re in that last digital envelope you almost certainly were in the top 3 of the semi’s scoreboard.

Run sheet

Each delegation drew first or second half of the draw. The producers then assign slots to each—arguably to ensure the pacing of the TV broadcast, but it also leaves open critiques of favouritism from the production team.

Draw

Country

Artist

Song

01

Serbia

Tijana Bogićević

In Too Deep

02

Austria

Nathan Trent

Running on Air

03

Macedonia

Jana Burčeska

Dance Alone

04

Malta

Claudia Faniello

Breathlessly

05

Romania

Ilinca and Alex Florea

Yodel It!

06

Netherlands

O’G3NE

Lights and Shadows

07

Hungary

Joci Pápai

Origo

08

Denmark

Anja

Where I Am

09

Ireland

Brendan Murray

Dying to Try

10

San Marino

Valentina Monetta and Jimmie Wilson

Spirit of the Night

11

Croatia

Jacques Houdek

My Friend

12

Norway

JOWST5

Grab the Moment5

13

Switzerland

Timebelle

Apollo

14

Belarus

Naviband

Story of My Life

15

Bulgaria

Kristian Kostov

Beautiful Mess

16

Lithuania

Fusedmarc

Rain of Revolution

17

Estonia

Koit Toome and Laura

Verona

18

Israel

IMRI

I Feel Alive

Just like the first semi-final, we can assume there’ll be an ad break between songs 9 and 10. Generally there’s one minute between entries, though a couple of two minute transitions will also be inserted. Let’s crack on with the entries and their prospects.

Sure, Could, Nah

There are a few entries in this first semi-final that I expect will, barring some major cockup on the nights (the jury votes after a dress rehearsal on Monday night), easily qualify for the Grand Final:

1. Austria: Most fans shrugged when this was announced as Austria’s internal selection. But not only is this guy a proper musician (he co-wrote this entry), throughout the preview party campaign season he’s shown himself to be a confident, charming, appealing performer. The terrible draw makes winning the semi-final nigh on impossible, but he only needs to finish in the top 10. I expect a high jury placement and solid televote score will both be easily achieved. And this cover of a Sanremo/Eurovision classic is just ace!

2. Romania: On paper this should be a total mess – yodeling plus some 90s ole school hip-hop. Instead it’s uplifting and fun and brilliant! Illinca and Alex have buckets of charisma and chemistry. Could easily win the semi-final. Dark horse to win the entire Contest!

3. Hungary: When the Magyars send anything of a high musical standard—regardless of genre—it qualifies for that year’s Grand Final, often ending up in the top 10 on Saturday night too. This fusion of contemporary pop, rap, and Romani storytelling is compelling even though I understand not a word. That a Roma singer switching between Romani and Hungarian is representing one of the more odiously racist European governments makes it particularly awesome! For songs like this the dilemma is keep the original language knowing some of your potential audience won’t get it—or switch to English and quite possible smother out the magic. They’ve gone for the former, which is the right tack for this entry. If a hipster dude with a charmingly off-kilter pop song can make the Grand Final top 10, this can too.

4. Bulgaria: Despite this being a very “ballady” year, Bulgaria’s entry will stand out because: 1.) the singer grew up in Russia and competed in one of the Russian Idols/Factors franchises (lots of ex-Soviet votes), and 2.) Kristian is remarkably poised for a 17 year old. Currently second in the bookies’ odds to win the whole thing—which I think is overestimating how well this will do—expect it to sail into the top 5 on Saturday night. Something only two other Bulgarian entries have ever done.

5. Estonia: In a very competitive year, this duet won the Estonia heats thanks to a massive televote score in every single round, defeating a fan favourite with an odiously insensitive “first peoples inspired” pop pastiche (bullet dodged ERR public relations team). The songwriter’s two most recent Estonian entries both qualified for that year’s Grand Final; both singers have been at the Eurovision before, when they were much younger. Secret weapon: Koit Toome’s amazingly robust falsetto.

The following are probably lost causes—unless they show up to rehearsals with something to overcome obvious deficiencies:

1. Malta: In the absence of any strong entries, the Maltese national final inevitably comes down to whomever has been trying for the golden ticket the longest. Claudia Faniello is a marvelous singer, but this is a cringily bad song—and unfortunately, since everyone in Maltese speaks flawless English, we understand every single word. It’s a shame—and a lesson to singers that they should only enter their national final when they know the song is great.

2. Ireland: my ancestral homeland sends another unprepared young person to the slaughter. It would be better of RTÉ simply stayed home—or let TG4 have a crack at organizing Ireland’s entry.

3. San Marino: Only one genuinely Sammarese singer has ever represented this wee statelet and she’s back for crack number four (tying a relentlessly persistent Swiss trio, one of whom is American). It’s not a bad song, and the singing is fine. But the absence of any bloc support and the lack of anything particularly memorable makes this unlikely to progress. Even though it’s the 11, 963rd Eurovision song written by Ralph Siegel.

4. Croatia: See Malta, except this was an internal selection. Expect this to be the roadkill entry for 2017: buddy sings both the pop and opera portions of this cheesy contemporary Christian steamer of a “duet”. In the official video he switches between glasses on, glasses off: if there’s a cunning way of staging this (think virtual reality), it could hoover up the WTF vote. Big fella Jacques—twice voted the biggest homophobe in what is a pretty homophobic country (*coughselfloathingcough*)—won’t get the bear vote either. Nope, you’re not My Friend, eejit: don’t piss off the gays if you want to do decently at the Eurovision.

5. Lithuania: A nothing entry. Nothing wrong with it, nothing memorable about it either. The kiss of death, in terms of getting out of a semi-final at the Eurovision.

That leaves another eight entries—over half of the competition—after five slots. Sixty-two percent aren’t bad odds. Here’s my ranking from most likely and least likely to qualify:

1. Israel: On paper this should be sailing into the Grand Final. Uptempo song, good looking lad, a country that knows how to stage things. Imri’s been upgraded from two consecutive stints as a backing vocalist, so he’ll understand how things operate in the bubble. The problem seems to be him reaching the high notes of the chorus: in the preview concerts he hit howler after howler—and at such a key moment of the performance. If he’s humble enough to avoid this and let his backers cover that note, he’ll be fine. If.

2. Macedonia: This is a fan favourite. It’s arguably the best song Macedonia’s ever sent. It’s also arguably the most generic pop song ever sent. We’ve only had glimpses of Jana’s live vocals…which might be a problem. But unless the vocal is horrible, expect Macedonia to make its first Grand Final appearance in five years.

3. Belarus: This is a fun, uplifting entry in a different language than English. It could catch enough support based on the duo’s joy when performing. Or finish 11th or 12th, like so many Belarussian entries seem to have done.

4. Netherlands: These three sisters have some amazing harmonies—in fact, they majorly lift the song. Dutch and Swedish entries suffer sometimes from being too perfect: perfect to the point of being robotic or soulless. From what I’ve seen, these women aren’t like that—but more experienced singers than they (Trintje) from the Netherlands have crumbled under the pressures of the bubble. If they do qualify, expect an unspectacular result on Saturday night.

5. Denmark: Had the Danes sent Anja Nissen’s 2016 entry to Stockholm we might well be in Copenhagen again this year. This year she won the Danish final with a polished, more mature, and quite possibly less Eurovision-appropriate entry. This song is designed to let Anja show her vocal chops.

6. Serbia: uptempo opening songs tend to qualify. But this will need some staging to “wrap” in a way that inspires public support. Even with a potential 16-24 starting points thanks to its neighbours.

7. Switzerland: the prize for most improved goes to Timebelle—this is much stronger than the version performed in the Swiss national final. Two of the members are of Romanian ancestry, which could give a bump of 8-12 points. Even so, is polished the same as memorable? I fear not.

8. Norway: The studio version is polished and contemporary. Aleksander is a great singer and kinda hawt…but the digitized vocals from the Norwegian final are not allowed at the Eurovision proper. Can’t see this working very well, in other words.

Qualifiers

That puts my predicted qualifiers as: Austria, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia, Israel, Macedonia, Belarus, Netherlands, and Denmark. This is not an ordinal list.

However, my rankings of the entries, in order of personal tastes:

  1. Romania
  2. Estonia
  3. Hungary
  4. Austria
  5. Belarus
  6. Israel
  7. Denmark
  8. Netherlands
  9. Macedonia
  10. Serbia
  11. Norway
  12. Switzerland
  13. Bulgaria
  14. Malta
  15. San Marino
  16. Ireland
  17. Lithuania
  18. Croatia.

Eurovision 2017: Semi-final One review

 

This is a wholly subjective, non-empirical assessment of this year’s first Eurovision semi-final. In this semi-final we will see:

  • Live Tuesday 09 May (early on 10 May in New Zealand and Australia)
  • 18 entries
  • Half of 6 “pots” to eliminate minimize possibly reduce the impact of neighbourly/diasporic/cultural point padding
  • With 21 countries voting: the 18 competing tonight, along with Italy, Spain and the UK (the other pre-qualified Grand Finalists will vote in the second semi-final)

All competing for 10 spots in this year’s Grand Final. As in 2016, this year the jury and televotes from each voting country will count equally. However, no scores will be announced…just the top 10 qualifiers, in no particular order. Except that somewhat magically the last qualifier is always one designed to ramp up the tension: if you’re in that last digital envelope you almost certainly were in the top 3 of the semi’s scoreboard.

Run sheet

Each delegation drew first or second half of the draw. The producers then assign slots to each—arguably to ensure the pacing of the TV broadcast, but it also leaves open critiques of favouritism from the production team.

Order Country Artist Song
01  Sweden Robin Bengtsson I Can’t Go On
02  Georgia Tamara Gachechiladze Keep the Faith
03  Australia Isaiah Don’t Come Easy
04  Albania Lindita World
05  Belgium Blanche City Lights
06  Montenegro Slavko Kalezić Space
07  Finland Norma John Blackbird
08  Azerbaijan Dihaj Skeletons
09  Portugal Salvador Sobral Amar Pelos Dois
10  Greece Demy This Is Love
11  Poland Kasia Moś Flashlight
12  Moldova Sunstroke Project Hey, Mamma!
13  Iceland Svala Paper
14  Czech Republic Martina Bárta My Turn
15  Cyprus Hovig Gravity
16  Armenia Artsvik Fly with Me
17  Slovenia Omar Naber On My Way
18  Latvia Triana Park Line

Assume there’s an ad break between songs 9 and 10. Generally there’s one minute between entries, though a couple of two minute transitions will also be inserted. There is a full 2 hours of official programming, but viewers in unlucky countries like the UK might have something awesome, such as this:

Subbed out with a “eurovish” bit, both inane and inconsequential. Which rather sucks. Now, about those songs…

In, Out, on the Cusp

There are a few entries in this first semi-final that I expect will, barring some major cockup on the nights (the jury votes after a dress rehearsal on Monday night), easily qualify for the Grand Final: these should be In.

  1. Sweden: You can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in H & M smart casual wear, stick it on five treadmills, and overwhelm anything redeemable about a fundamentally good song. There is a constituency for this, but I suspect it’s not as large as many think. Qualify, but could easily end up 15th in the Grand Final. Unless it wins. Gawd, please no: I love Petra too, but another Swedish win? Not for this…
  2. Azerbaijan: The strongest of the ex-Soviet bloc’s. Edgy, she seems almost too cool for the Eurovision, but the Azeris know how to do staging. On track for a return to the top 10 for the secular Turkic faux republic.
  3. Portugal: On paper a simple ballad in Portuguese sung by a hipster in frumpy clothes with a top knot should be a fail. But this is a beautiful, timeless song and the singer show why he’s considers one of the most exciting jazz singers in Lisbon. Juries should lift this; hopefully the public will get it too. Arguably one of the three best songs in 2017. It could win the semi-final or sneak in at 10th
  4. Greece: Their luck with a series of weak entries finally ran out in 2016: for the first time Greece missed a Grand Final since we’ve had Grand Finals. So they’re back to the formula that brought them victory in 2005: a currently popular singer letting the public choose one of three songs in a televote. Easily qualifying and possibly top 10 come Saturday. Whether it could do better will depend on staging. We’ve also not seem her deliver a live vocal yet.
  5. Moldova: Yes Epic Sax Guy is back, but Sunstroke Project have a stronger song than their 2010 entry and their already strong performance ethos has only improved. This is fun, uptempo and entertaining. I’d be gobsmacked if they didn’t improved on 10th in their semi-final and 22nd in the Grand Final. Merci Moldova!
  6. Armenia: A late draw, a bloc vote (minus nemesis Azerbaijan) and an accomplished singer should send any Armenian entry to the Grand Final. This could be staged in a way that enhances its chances (top 10) or scuttles them (bottom 5). But qualifying, nonetheless.

The following are probably lost causes—unless they show up to rehearsals with something to overcome obvious deficiencies. “Out”, in other words:

  1. Georgia: why do countries insist on sending Whitney Houstonesque singers that only make the public think “she’s no Whitney.” Oh and piss off with the anti-Muslim lyric “who told you to hide behind a veil?”
  2. Poland: There is a fairly large diaspora for Poland, but usually there needs to be something more compelling that competent singing for that to boost them into the Grand Final. Great singer, unremarkable song.
  3. Iceland: And then there is the great singer, wrong song. When an obvious ass-kicker of a women tries to moan about paper cuts as a metaphor for love gone wrong…fail.
  4. Slovenia: The last time Eurovision came to Kyiv, this guy represented Slovenia with a power ballad and failed to qualify. Twelve years later and he’s got another power ballad; sadly, it’s a much weaker one.
  5. Latvia: This is hook looking for a song. Latvia only qualifies when it send something great—often they deserve to do better, since their bloc support is minimal. On merit, this is going nowhere.

 

That leaves another seven entries—almost half of the competition—after the four remaining slots. Fifty-seven percent are so-so odds. Here’s my ranking from most likely and least likely to qualify:

  1. Albania: Performing fourth is not great, but Lindita is a diva—and she’s got runs. The song was written by (and for) her. Add in some Albanian diaspora in Montenegro, Greece, and Sweden.
  2. Montenegro: camp, crude, and compelling. The ex-Yugo vote won’t help, but the gay vote should. Assuming he can deliver vocally.
  3. Finland: The song is great; so are the singer and pianist. In fact, this is pure class. Unfortunately the way it was staged in the Finnish heats screamed Adele knock-off. Perhaps they’ve totally reworked this, in a good way? Otherwise I see this just missing out. The rest of the Scandi bloc tends to under-score the Finns, except for Estonia (who are in the other semi-final).
  4. Cyprus: Another year with another song co-penned by Thomas G:son. Good song, good singer, some support from Greece and Armenia, but this will come down to staging. It has to be engaging, it has to suit the song and Hovig himself. Who seems like more of a gigger. We shall see.
  5. Australia: The profile of Aussie acts is less year upon year, but this guy is a genuine novice (he won their X Factor last year at 17 years of age). The song is decent vehicle, and he can deliver the notes. But he’s also known for flubbing lyrics or getting lost or distracted emotionally—none of which augers well for an audience of 20-30 million. Sweden and the UK should give anything the Australians send at least 8 points apiece.
  6. Belgium: So much buzz around this. We know she can deliver the vocal in an intimate setting (read: Belgium TV studio). But her preview show performances have lacked any sort of presence. Even with a note-perfect vocal, it’s such a particularly languid vibe. How will she connect with the viewers? My choice for surprise non-qualifier, even if juries go for it.
  7. Czech Republic: Perhaps the best female vocalist, but once again a great Czech act is saddled with a song that hinders their ability to shine. If Martina qualifies it will be because of her, rather than My Turn. It’s in my personal top 10 though.

Qualifiers

That puts my predicted qualifiers as: Sweden,  Azerbaijan,  Portugal,

Greece, Moldova, Armenia, Albania, Montenegro, Finland and Cyprus. This is not an ordinal list.

However, my rankings of the entries, in order of personal tastes:

Portugal, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Belgium, Montenegro, Greece, Finland, Armenia, Albania, Australia, Slovenia, Poland, Latvia, Georgia, and Sweden.

cloudy pool begone!

While Auckland’s not having its best ever summer, it is definitely summer…some days. But to put it in context, we usually de-winterize our pool by mid-September. This year it was almost November. Climate change, anyone?

Since October it has been a battle royale between me and the pool gawds. Getting it to go from green to blue was easy. But no matter what I tried, I was unable to get the pool back to the clarity of the previous two summers. I flocc’d. I vacuumed to waste. I committed multiple attempts at algaecide. The testing came back OK, but the pool was cloudy.

As luck would have it–for all sorts of reasons–we had two houseguests arrive early in January…one of whom has owned pools for years. He took one look at it and said “you need to change the sand.” As in the sand filter. “How often are you supposed to do that?” I queried. “Every 2-3 years, depending on how long your [pool] seasons is.”

Oh.

Last year we had a handy Pool Guy™  install a new pump motor. He mentioned at the time that many people were switching from sand to a combination of sand and glass beads. In short order (within the same week) he was here pumping out the old sand and adding new sand (bottom third) and glass beads (rest).

Within 15 minutes the pool was perfect. Glass is more expensive, but it can last for up to 15 years.

You’re welcome 🙂

laundromat in Vilnius

I was looking for a place to get my clothes cleaned, which was seeking enlightenment or bliss, but certainly sort of felt like it once achieved.

I’ll preface this wee tale by admitting I am not the assertive world explorer of years past. As I get older I am less inclined to leap into social interactions where languages (or lack of a common language) can be a barrier. When I was 18 I spent an hour trying to communicate with a Parisian gendarme about where we could crash in the local train station. I am no longer that 18 year-old. So this is the story of tired, grumpy ould fat fellow who was running out of clean clothes. Who also couldn’t bring himself to suffer the indignity of trawling the bargain racks of the nearest H & M (across the street from my VNO hotel, as it were). In my defence, I did anticipate this dilemma before my departure.

Joglé? Jogné

My European sojourn ’16 will have lasted 22 days by its completion. There was no way I’d schlep 4 weeks of clothes around with me, so I decided to have a laundry break around day 12: today is day 11; I had another day’s worth of clothes left, go me! So I did some advance research and discovered a “washing” service called Joglé. Which seemed to offer everything from dry cleaning to drop of washing of clothes to rug cleaning. Their website is a bit vague, but I found a couple of online crowdshared reviews that were positive (scroll down on that last link). They were terse, but seemed to come from kindred spirits.

I thought perhaps the travel gawds were shining upon me when I found one of their drop-off locations was across the street from my hotel. Therefore after a hearty breakfast and my daily chat with my husband, I  waddled across the road with my 6kg sac of soiled clothes. You have to be contemplated being one day away from knickerlessness to understand my glee this morning.

Except Joglé lady spoke no English (their website, like most in .lt is in English, Lithuanian and Russian). So I used my phone’s Google Translate app, and she pulled out The Book of Pricing, which was also trilingual (she, sadly, wasn’t not willing to try). It became clear that they offer a slightly less expensive per-item laundry service than my hotel would have charged me. And as I wandered out of her realm I ran into a chap who was seated across from me on the flight into VNO yesterday. From the Bay Area, also in need of laundry service. We tried to ascertain options on my phone, but I gave up: regardless, I was going to have to go back to my room.

When in doubt, ask a Queen

Back in my room–where I could use a proper keyboard to make queries–I came across this blog entry, which described my exact dilemma. Triangulating their posting with Google allowed me to find an address to a laundromat within a 30 minute bus ride from my hotel. All that left was:

  1. Getting a bus ticket (on my to-do list already0
  2. Setting up the journey in my iPhone’s Google Maps app
  3. Lumbering onto said transport with my sack-o-soilies
  4. Finding my way from the bus stop to the laundromat
  5. Getting laundry actually done in the blessed laundromat

All whilst trying to avoid committing the sort of unspoken social misstep that only anglophone travellers are able to do. I’ve given each of these steps their own sections below. You’re very welcome.

Bus tickets

You can pay the drive €1.00 for a 60 minute bus ticket. If you plan on using the bus more than twice a day, getting some sort of pass is a better option. Right on Gedimono Pr. across from the Novotel is a Vilnius Transport kiosk. They can sell you a smart card (Vilniečio Kortele) for €1,50. You can charge this up with a € amount, or buy a 1, 3 or 10 day pass. Fares are also slightly less expensive by using the card than paying the driver in cash each time. Ignore the voluminous list of discount schemes–all of which seem only to apply to residents of Lithuania.

Setting up journey

Speed Queen is a franchise laundromat scheme. The easiest location to get to seems to be N (as in Norfa) Bazè shopping mall. The street address for the mall is Savanorių pr. 176–but this is the tricky part. The mall is not on the main street: it’s on a side street behind this address. But use this address for Google Maps.

Vilnius Transport’s schedules are loaded into Google Maps, so you can enter your start location and destination and tap into the public transport tab. I’ve found it to be super-reliable in Vilnius.  Use the app to navigate to your nearest bus stop, and await your chariot.

When you get to Savanorių pr. 176 you will see a set of downward stairs–take those. At the bottom of the stairs, turn left to pass under the busy road, then exit the stairs on your l side. It’s a gangky, icky passageway, but safe. Turn right onto Raciu Gatve. Go past the buildings on your immediate right and you should see–on your right–the entrance to the N Bazè mall.

Speed Queen is just inside those doors, on your right. Next to a large furniture store.

Laundering

Unlike laundromats in the anglosphere, at Speed Queen you’ve got two options:

  1. Drop your laundry off and come back to pick up
  2. Do the laundry yourself, but prepay the amount required

The machines could accept coins but this is disabled. Given that I didn’t want to make this journey an extra time, I opted for #2 above. Dunno what #1 entailed; besides, I’d assumed I’d be occupied with laundering for 2-3 hours, including travel time. Which worked out just about right in the end.

The lovely lady who manages this location’s first language is Russian (I got nothing), but she’s also fluent in Lithuanian (I got less than nothing). But her 100 word English vocabulary won the day–and she was just lovely in every sense of the word. Once she understood I wanted to do my own laundry, she calculated that for an 8kg wash and dry, including her supplying soap and fabric softener, would cost me €5,40. Which might seem expensive, but I didn’t need to bring anything but my clothes. And it was still about 5% of what the hotel might have charged me for just my shirts and pants to be dry cleaned.

I loaded the washer, she added the soap and softener. I had 32 minutes to kills, so I wandered through the mall. Once the wash was done, I transferred it all to the dryer. The 28 minutes included seems like too little, but everything was dry, including my jeans. I fluffed and folded, thanked her profusely (and she thanked me profusely back!), and I was back on the bus to my hotel. 2.5 hours from the time I boarded the first bus.

Hurrah!

My husband mocks me for having something of a laundry fetish. He’s not entirely out of line, but it’s really more of a chore crush. I enjoy chores for which the outcomes are tangible (laundry, mopping, clearing the kitchen or bathroom) versus those for which they are not (dusting). I am, however, something of a laundry chauvinist: I like the way I do it, the way my Mum taught me. Himself, surprisingly, prefers the way he does it.

Now all I need to decide tomorrow is what to wear. Choices!

PS vote Remain UK, k?

Safety (Orlando)

I wasn’t looking for sex: I had found sex already. And I wasn’t looking for love, either.

It was January first, a Thursday; I had stayed in the night before (New Year’s Eve; amateur night). Rather than go out locally, I walked down to the subway and headed into the city. On a holiday schedule it takes about 90 minutes to get from Rockaway to the Village. I put on my surly, disconnected subway face, found a seat and rode on.

Finding it was surprisingly difficult. North of 14th Street New York is mostly a grid; below 14th and you’re in the old Nieuw Amsterdam, where streets that are purported to run East-West sometimes intersect other East-West streets (I’m talkin’ to you, West 4th). Usually when I’m lost I get increasingly anxious. This time I started out extremely anxious and was somewhat relieved: maybe it’s not supposed to happen today. Maybe. Except there it appeared, Uncle Charlie’s on Greenwich Avenue. I’d rehearsed this in my mind the whole way on the train: deep breath. Just go in. “Just” can be a perverse word, at times.

I pulled open the door and went in. It was nearly empty (January first, duh). I strode past the main bar and found a smaller, quieter one. With two bartenders who looked like super models. I needed a beer, which trumped any sense of inferiority. And then another, and another. It was the 80s, so Madonna was playing. Open your heart to me…

The next day it began in earnest. I started rebuilding my relationship with my parents based on honesty. For me it was a difficult, awkward conversation towards which I had been building since my early teens. For them it was a conversation for which they were ill-prepared. I had gone into their bedroom with two probably outcomes.  Outcome A was it would be OK. Outcome B was that it would go badly, necessitating me moving in with my brother and sister-in-law. We landed somewhere between the two: I lived with my parents for three more months, but left when the (mostly) quiet opprobrium seemed unchanging.

In 1987 there was no internet. The only mentions of anything gay in mainstream newspapers usually focused on AIDS. A lot of that focused on an ostensive moral causality that posits a virus as the carrier of a divine punishment, the wages of sin. It’s a message I understand well (indoctrination by dogma will do that); it’s also also untrue (education will do that). So finding out where other gay guys were was not easy.

I also still did not quite yet have my head around the idea that two men—even two men that loved each other deeply—could share a life together. Falling in love with another man; been there, done that. Face the scorn that fell upon gay couples, day after day, to build a family? Was that even possible?

I spent hundreds of hours at Uncle Charlie’s, and Ty’s, and Numbers. It was often a lot of fun. There was crushing rejection, feeling like I was perhaps not ugly, realising that while chemistry was important, knowing who you were was too. This was personal, peer-based pedagogy: men and women unteaching one another that same-sex attraction was bad. It seemed radical at the time: could the world around us be wrong, rather than us? It has proven to be true, though the unlearning is still necessary.

It was not all joy, however. A lot of us arrived damaged from homophobia; some of us were broken. Put a bunch of hurting people who have learned that trusting others can be dangerous, add alcohol, and sometimes the worst came out of us. Having been denied a genuine adolescence, sometimes it seemed like high school, just very gay. But most of us outgrew it. We might not have gone as frequently, but we still went. I met my first serious boyfriend (bad choice) at one. I met my ex-partner and best friend at another (great choice). And more friends than I can count.

The convergence of the internet and (better) human rights for LGBT people means gay bars all over the world have struggled. I am no different: I met my husband online in 2003. Before there were dating sites or apps, smiling and flirting with a handsome man in the supermarket was treacherous: the response was mostly somewhere between rancour and violence. That hasn’t changed as much as many would like to think, despite marriage equality and LGBTQ rights protections. Society needs to catch up with its laws.

I wasn’t looking for sex, or love: I was looking for safety. A space where I could smile at a handsome man without fear. Where I could be myself. And have some fun.

As were hundreds of people in a gay club in Orlando yesterday, fifty of whom are now dead. They were not safe. We are not safe.

We still need safe spaces of our own. We need public spaces to be safe spaces for LGBT people too. Until I can smile at a handsome (straight) man in the supermarket and he sees it for what it is—a compliment, rather than his emasculation—we are not safe.