What is Europe anyway? It is a big chunk of land between the Ural mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, half of which rotted away for decades behind the iron curtain, while the other half became a pathetic periphery of the mighty fast-food empire. In the aftermath of the fall of Communism and EU expansion, the old continent is still a cacophony of real and imagined voices; a mishmash of pretentious high culture and archaic customs; a modern tower of Babel in the landscape of self-delusions and dreams of past glory.
Yet despite the books about the crisis of European transcendental phenomenology or the crisis of the European subject; despite the stalled European constitution -- or, should we say: despite the French being difficult and the Dutch being stingy? -- and despite the absurd royal families and their even more absurd supporters, Europe is really in no danger of disappearing from the face of the Earth.
That is, as long as it has its very own Eurovision Song Contest.
A continental tradition since 1956, the Grand Prix de la Chanson has fanatic followers and bitter foes. The former like to point out that ABBA may have ended up earning their bread in a massage parlor in Uppsala, if it hadn't been for their phenomenal 1974 victory. The latter like to shut the former's mouth by pointing out that the world could've been spared Celine Dion's whining, had she not won the competition in 1988.
Yet, the truth of the matter is that no other cultural institution or sporting event can unite the Europeans -- foes and friends alike -- in such a delightful celebration of gaudiness and bad taste.
Did anybody say 'Balkanization'?
Take the Balkan states, for example. They've been at each other throats for centuries. They are responsible for the worst atrocities on the continent since the end of World War II. They still beat each other up regularly at soccer matches. But as soon as you let them onto the Eurovision stage, they magically transform into ambassadors of joy and international understanding.
When Serbia and Montenegro's medieval techno-pop funeral hymn almost won the 2004 contest -- it came second only to the Ukrainian lion tamer and leather domina Ruslana -- the Balkan countries, which passionately and shadily voted for each other's songs, swore they couldn't remember what the wars were about in the first place.
That is not to say that internally things are always that rosy. Serbia and Montenegro, now in the last stages of final disintegration, will not participate in Athens this year because the ever-shrinking country couldn't get its act together and elect a song that both states would agree on. But that doesn't mean that they won't be friends again next year. We fight, we make peace. We cry together, we laugh together. Life is a cabaret.
The twilight zone
Hosted this year by Greek national broadcaster ERT, the Eurovision Song Contest will consist of a semi-final on Thursday and a final on Saturday, with audiences in Europe, Turkey and Israel registering their votes or sending SMS messages to a central database.
So, who will win this year? Will it be the Finnish rock group Lordi -- a hard rock quintet kitted out in monster masks and medieval armor, or Severina -- the Croatian Pamela Anderson, whose videotaped sex romps delighted the Balkan machos at least as much as her folk songs a couple of years ago? Will Germany's Texas Lightening manage to save the country's face after the last year's debacle when Gracia's song -- with a sadly appropriate title "Run and Hide" -- made every German want to do exactly the same?
It's hard to tell. Because Eurovision is as whimsical and unpredictable as it is loud and flashy. Because, sometimes, Europeans like to surprise themselves.
Because Eurovision is Europe.