TORINO 2022: My First Eurovision Experience and the Secrets of an Alpine City

A banner for Eurovision outside the Parco del Valentino.

Before my flight out of SFO, I had a certain idea of what my first Eurovision experience would be like. A part of my hope before my flight was that I’d be reliving the splendidly immersive scene in the Lizzie McGuire Movie where she was riding a bus through the illuminated cobblestone roads of Rome that were accented by iconic mythological architecture, all while a charmingly stereotypical Italian song like ‘On an Evening in Roma’ followed me to my hotel on that first evening. I did not exactly receive that. My first going-to-Eurovision experience was rife with chaos and incredible frustration, but aside from that, it held for me the most intensely rewarding consequences that only come from being in the danger zone.

Me in front of the stage at the Eurovillage.

To establish context, I had originally booked a hotel in the city center but due to some issues with confirming our reservation, which I can’t exactly remember in great length with it having been so long ago, we had relocated to a hotel three towns over where we were surrounded by ploughed fields, a looming nighttime darkness, and a pristine silence that was far removed from the glimmer of the city lights. Our hotel was located in a village called Rosta, which was about 20 minutes by train from the center of Turin. Picking us up from the airport at eleven that night was the hotel’s trusted taxi driver, who we will call Marco – a plump, giddy Italian man in his mid 60’s who spoke little pieces of English. As we rode along to our hamlet that first night, the narrow peaks of the western Swiss Alps greeted us with white caps. Below them was a thick darkness accented by the aroma of manure – fertiliser for the sprouting field of crops that laid right outside our bedroom window. No other guests were booked at the time, and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I was experiencing an isolation provided exclusively by the solace of the Italian countryside – a hiccup of Piemonte naturale in the melody of Eurovision, and it was not anything I could have ever expected.

A view of the Swiss Alps from Rosta, Piemonte.

The next morning, a number of military-looking men with tactical gear had appeared in our hotel lobby. They were checking into rooms on our floor, (some very pretty Italian men, mind you) and as it turned out, they were the security detail for the Eurovision events. We did end up seeing a few of them at both Eurovillage and Pala Olympico over the course of our time in Turin. For the first full day’s plan, my group and I had decided to get some shopping done at a mall that was between the township of our hotel and the city center. After doing our errands, we opted to schedule an Uber to take us to the Eurovillage at Parco del Valentino. Less that twenty seconds after boarding the vehicle, our Uber driver had gotten into a bumper-on-bumper accident with another vehicle in the parking lot after fighting for the road lane. Maybe fifteen seconds following the impact, our driver proceeds to exit the vehicle and get into a shouting match with the other driver. Being a terminally confused group of Americans, the best we could assume to do in the moment was exit the Uber and try to call for another one. Having arrived in the country maybe ten hours ago, to say we were in a state of shock to compound our jetlagged confusion is a grave understatement.

Right after the car accident.

We then had plans to go to the city later that day to get something to eat and check out the Eurovillage. After Marco had picked us up half an hour later, I asked him (in the best Duolingo-provided Italian that I could muster) about what good places there were to eat in town, as this is a question I’ve always loved asking. Marco’s charming reply was one that excited and intrigued me beyond future hesitation. His response: “You should try anywhere in town. Stop anywhere and try the food.” What does that mean?

There’s an idea in the United States that swerving your vehicle is generally not a good idea in the general context of being a safe driver, but in Italy, I was reminded that the road was but an extension of the sidewalk – there are no lanes, and the paint markings on the road serve as suggestions rather than mandatory barriers. Every driver of ours, including Marco, seemed to adopt a kind of flow that was unfamiliar to me and to some extent quite anxiety-inducing for someone from the outside. Coming close to the park, I saw banners for the contest lined up outside the fences that led to security, but immediately outside that perimeter, the fanfare was lost. The city seemed anxious to return to its normalcy, and there wasn’t as much enthusiasm about having Eurovision held there as I thought there would be. To say there was little excitement around Eurovision is a wicked way to put it lightly. I then had a passing thought: other than inside the Eurovillage, where else is there to go around here?

A friend I had previously met at the Daði concert at The Independent in San Francisco had reconnected with me at the Eurovillage after I got my power bank confiscated at security, and after discussing our predictions for the results of the shows in the coming week, we were reminded that later that evening that performing on the main stage would be five of the competing acts at Eurovision: Konstrakta from Serbia,
Jérémie Makiese from Belgium, Andrea from North Macedonia, Malik Harris from Germany, and Cornelia Jakobs from Sweden. Seeing Eurovision acts of the present year being performed for me in person for the first time, I was ecstatic. My excitement was well warranted because the performances were truly fantastic. This was a penultimate first in my eight years of being an American Eurofan, and having it presented to me in person was like watching the borders of my fantasy become tangible in the setting sun of Piemonte. The sensation I experienced witnessing these performances was one I could not even adequately illustrate with words – people other than myself and my headphones know these songs. This isn’t just a dream I’ve lived through Twitter and YouTube. Eurovision is real.

Cornelia Jakobs performing at the Eurovillage.

It was toward the end of the Belgian performance when I realized that the crowd around us was growing more dense, and the language I proceeded to hear around me was Italian – almost exclusively. The international folks around us had dispersed away somewhere. Within ten or so minutes, what felt like a few hundred to a few thousand Italian youths, university students I assume, populated the area in front of the stage where we stood in active anticipation for the performers that followed the Eurovision acts: a band called Negrita. This was around the time we needed to make our exit from Parco del Valentino and board the train – which we decided to attempt for the first time that night in lieu of paying for a taxi to go outside the urban area. A vivid memory of mine upon exiting the park was the sheer amount of confusion I saw in the expressions of Eurofans who were leaving the village at the same time we were. Getting from A to B was tricky, but moving from B back to A was just short of impossible that night. Getting my power bank back was another annoyingly misunderstanding-laden process that I’ll choose to omit the details of here.

Remembering that the last train to Rosta would begin boarding in seventeen minutes with a nineteen-minute walk ahead of us, we sprinted to the train terminus Porto Nuovo in the hope of catching the late-night line. Voilà! We’d purchased our tickets and approached the platform for Rosta, where we a saw a train arriving. Upon boarding the train, we were approached by the starchy-uniformed conductor and subsequently asked to leave the car. Why? One may ask. Despite having already purchased our tickets and the train arriving at the promised platform, we were told that the line had closed for the night. We got stuck outside the Porto Nuovo station waiting for a Taxi past 1AM, after a broken conversation with Marco asking if he could pick us up. I barely understood what he was telling me and vice versa – I had the sobering realization that transportation through, in, and out of the city would be a persistent thorn in my side. Something like an hour and a half later, we found an Uber who accepted the ride to take us back to the hotel. The growing uncertainty of when we would ever figure out how to get around in the city was my *click* moment of culture shock.

After the shaky transportation woes on our first night, we had decided to give the train another try to get to Pala Alpitour, which was a few blocks away from the Eurovillage. This was also the day we managed to learn another two of the six crucial modes of transportation we would be adopting in the next week: train and tram. We needed to get to the train station in Rosta, but in order to do that, we’d have to either hire a cab for a seven minute ride or walk the road for 45 minutes in the hope of getting to the platform on time. Needing a more concrete solution, I asked the front desk of our hotel if there were a faster way to get to the station so we wouldn’t get stuck walking along a sidewalk-less road for a fat portion of the day. Their response? They believed (as in were unable to verify) that there existed a path through an open meadow that served as a shortcut in lieu of the longer road route, and passing by a few residences and factories would thus lead us to a hole in some foliage where a dirt path would become more visible. The way it was described sounded like a secret doorway that would appear in a video game that could only be summoned with a cheat code. Lo and behold, there was indeed a dirt footpath hidden far out of sight but close enough for us to walk to. The path itself was a foot-wide, traversing a few streams over colorful hillsides that stood at the foot of the immaculate Swiss Alps. This path was a secret of our village, holding in its stride the candid charm of the sublime Italian countryside, and its gorgeous journey demanded fifteen minutes of quaint intimacy. We then adopted this shortcut as a part of the daily routine to get to the Eurovision events.

A view of the footpath to the train station in Rosta.

Getting through security to the first semifinal, my power bank was either ignored or misinterpreted and thus not confiscated from me past that checkpoint. I had met up with a friend of mine from ESCPortugal, and upon entering the arena, I saw the stage and the infamous ‘black sun’ from a wing that was hidden behind some of the satellite lighting rigs toward the far back right of the performers. Where we were seated… honestly sucked. The monitors the broadcasts were modeling on were hidden behind some ugly machinery, and for a large number of acts, a rig of rotating lights would come down from the ceiling and block absolutely everything from view. Not only was I not able to see the stage or camera work from where I was, but the acts themselves were just as invisible. It was almost like we as audience members weren’t supposed to be seated there at all – there was no point. In any event, I was proudly hoisting my Croatian flag above my head the second Mia came to perform Guilty Pleasure for the arena, and I was excited to be the only one in our section supporting her. Despite the challenge of not being able to see practically anything, the show was phenomenal and the acts sounded great.

Some backlights blocking Monika Liu’s performance.

The scandalous qualifier round came after the voting sequence, and being in the arena as people shouted for the songs they wanted and needed to see through to the final was something like a daydream – it felt way more intense being raw witness to the green room and seeing the artists’ faces as they jumped up out of their seats – or didn’t. Because I had a certain allotment of favorites, the results didn’t look too good, and in fact, they were pretty upsetting. It was time to return to the hotel. This evening’s drive, Marco talked about his hometown, Puglia, and the wines from the Italian south – how they were stronger and more flavorful than anything that could be sourced from the north, where we were. We also chatted about Eurovision, and the fact that his wife’s favorite of the night the ill-fated Albanian entry. Dear god, my Italian was finally getting better somehow.

Taking the morning stride through the meadow path again on Wednesday, we were scheduled to meet Alesia Michelle in town on the other side of the Po River, at a pizzeria called Casale 93. Amped by the green neon sign, we were greeted by something like twenty other Eurofans, and holy moly, it felt good to speak English for a bit. I never thought I’d catch myself saying that let alone writing it. Fans of Alesia from all around the world had arrived at the ‘Volare! Dining Experience’ and when she herself arrived, we started to dish on all things Eurovision, especially the happenings of the first semifinal. The excellent courses and friendly staff embossed this evening as one of the highlights of the trip, After a few glasses of wine, I had become tomato red.

Alesia and I.

In this state, Alesia and I discussed this site and our inaugural season in Turin. EurovisionFam is small, but ever mighty.

When the bus missed its cue a few times at the station to take us home, it was once again Marco who drove us back to Rosta. On this drive, I learned about his daughters – one of whom was studying to become a fashion designer in Milan.

I would argue that my food experience in the city was excellent. Whether it were the creative and lively seafood and meat dishes served at the dinner hosted by Alesia or just a stop-along-the-road pizza and kebab joint still open for siesta, I found some common themes for any time I wanted to eat: compared to restaurants in the United States, food was cheap, healthy, and served very quickly. Water, beer, wine, and espresso were also laid on the table for just a few Euro more. What Marco had told me days before was spoken with solid confidence was veritable though it seemed ambitious – everywhere we ate was pretty great. I think one of the main reasons is this: real Italian food is much simpler than what my American experience suggests… Olive Garden, for example. The food I ate in Turin did not have an aggressive accoutrement of garlic that dressed everything from fish to breadsticks, nothing was overly-salty or blanketed with a fragrance of dried oregano or basil. No excess is needed with good, fresh ingredients that already packed with palate-pleasing qualities. The cusp of the difference between actual food from Italy and Italian-themed food from the states was hidden in the use of high quality, balanced ingredients. No flavors were out-competed by pungent seasonings. Two words to describe a locked gem of Italian food: simplicity and freshness.

Kebab from a restaurant in town.

Now, the gelateria. After having successfully used the bus and metro (Yay! Sixth mode of transportation unlocked) to get to the plaza of the Royal Palace of Turin, we scanned about and sat down at a shop called Menodiciotto. I could make the decision now to drone on that the gelato was delicious and you should try it when you’re in town, which is true, but there was one enchanting piece of the puzzle that opened my eyes a bit. Across from our curbside table, as well as behind it, in front of it, all around; were high school and college students with their notebooks and STACKS of textbooks, chatting away some of the stress of their upcoming exams. Having been out of school for the last three years, I forgot that tests take place usually around May depending on where one lives, and this was for many a necessary extension of a study hall. A part of me kind of began to miss studying, of all things. Primary schools all the while were traversing the bus lanes to and fro in the street in what appeared to be end-of-year field trips to the museum. I myself remember warmly these educational excursions in my earliest schooling, usually as it got close to late May and early June. Unexpectedly, seeing the harmony of students around Menodiciotto allowed me to relive some of my own fondest memories in school.

Gelato from Menodiciotto.

The evening of Semifinal 2 stood around the corner, when my winner Cyprus was set to compete at song number nine. Alesia had mentioned that during the rehearsal her vocals were off, and that worried me. Her shot at qualifying was at stake. My Daði friend linked back up with me again at the Lingotto Mall, and as we were headed to the arena on the crowded sidewalk, I yeeted out my large Cypriot flag in support of Andromache.

Me holding the Cyprus flag.

Before getting through security to get to the courtyard in front of Pala Olympico’s entry door, we spotted a tiny woman with short, platinum hair. She wore a timeless emerald green sequin dress and was speaking on the phone with a friend of hers. Oh my god, I realized, it’s SuRie! (If you don’t know who that is and you’re reading a Eurovision blog, I suggest you refer to some assigned reading) Yes, SuRie. The crystalline drop of elegance herself waited in the queue with us and we chatted for a bit, which was supremely surreal. Would you believe me if I told you she’s funny as hell? Interestingly enough, just like with us, it was her first time being in the live audience at a Eurovision show. She was the one and only Eurovision artist I had the pleasure of meeting in person to date, and I feel like I have some bragging rights.

Back to getting through security, they found my power bank. The guard in question, after displaying it to me, chose to let me have it in the arena without issue. This third outcome led me to a conclusion of some kind: for RAI, the rules in place on what’s allowed inside the venues depend on who the cop is.

Us and SuRie.

When we saw our seats in the arena, we couldn’t contain our excitement. The green room was right in front of us, and the stage just a few meters behind that. Woah. Nothing could’ve beat the view we had, but at one ultimate cost: we didn’t read much into the fact that there was a *TikTok* sticker on our seats, and as the Semifinal commenced, we noticed that a few of the staff members were looking in our general direction and whispering to one another. In our section of the crowd were my Cyprus flag, the flag of the Estonians next to me, and the Swedish flag on my far left. As the songs continued, several cameramen were focused in our direction. Take a wild guess what happened next. I will never not be freaking out about this.

I’m on the Eurovision screen.

Well… Andromache didn’t make it to the final, nor did many other fan favorites, once again. This makes the second Eurovision show in a row where I’m dancing about with a non-qualifier flag. The semi was still an amazing, irreplaceable experience, and having the seats that we did really allowed us to feel immersed in the songs and their delivery. This experience was in every way better than that of the first semi.

Before going back to Rosta, my party and I decided to check out some of the nightlife in the city for Eurovision events. From what I understood, there would not be one general area where Eurofans could celebrate and mingle, but ten dispersed locations of different types of venues all over town. We were regretfully informed that the several Euroclubs were not playing Eurovision songs, which spoiled things somewhat. A number of my friends from other publications had named Hiroshima Mon Amour as a place to come for the afterparty, as there were going to be some Eurovision acts from this year and years prior performing there, but after waiting in one of the lines for an hour, the doors closed. They hit their maximum indoor capacity with hundreds of other show-goers standing on the sidewalk. It wasn’t clear to many of us where other afterparties would be hosted, and many people in line, including us, decided to not waste any more time waiting. The quantity of people arriving in the city had stressed the public transit systems in Turin, which made it infinitely harder to navigate to another place where Eurovision fans congregated with Eurovision music. Whether the reason for this was Covid precautions or not, having no place to go next was a buzz kill. The city had closed down and once again left another mass of Eurofans confused and angry. My thinking is: it’s Eurovision week! We need to keep the fun rolling. That didn’t happen.

On the impromptu drive back to Rosta with Marco at almost 2 AM, he casually started talking about his other daughter whose boyfriend is a bomb defuser. How cool is that?

The next day, it was time for my tattoo, the jury final, and the pre-final stream with the peeps here in the Fam. The train arrived late and so did the bus that was supposed to take me to the tattoo parlor on time, so I was already running late. The amount of English my artist, let’s call him Luca, was able to speak was just about on par with how much Italian I could reply with, so we were able to make some pleasant conversation while he stuck me. The short conversations Luca and I had were mostly about Eurovision, but we also talked about our lives and passions. This was a very much needed distraction, since oh Christ on a cracker. It was so incredibly painful that I fought the urge to pass out for its entire duration. One would be surprised I didn’t at least cry. I consider my rib piece to now be the apex of the most physical pain I’ve ever felt, but deservedly so. It’s a stunning design. Luca needed an hour and a half longer than expected to finish the details of my piece, and it was while he was wrapping me up that I remembered I had left my ID card at the hotel in Rosta. Whirring out of the tattoo parlor disoriented from the pain in my side, I made a mad dash to our village to come back just in time to get to the jury show. I even missed the pre-final team stream, which I was really excited to get to. Sorry, guys!

The tattoo I had gotten in Turin. It is a plaque that says ‘Icaro È Libero’

Our seats for the jury final were also good, and I was hyped to see some fake grand final results. This being my third time seeing a Eurovision show in person, I was beginning to notice some of the finer details in how each song sounded live, and I could better hone my focus into their whole packages. The big 5 were spectacular, as is what I was more or less expecting. The dynamic of the hosts seemed a little chaotic and disorganized, and I was trying to ignore that. When the voting lines fake-opened, I vividly remember for an interval act a big red heart inflating upon the stage and Mika performing some of his heyday hits. He tried to get the crowd going with a Love Love Peace Peace -adjacent number that lacked any charisma, and it honestly came off very cringe. Flailing about the stage in a crayola and white suit in the silhouette of a boisterously red inflateable heart was cringey. People left their seats after that. Me, I stayed for the fake jury and televote results. Congratufaketions, Norway.

Mika’s interval act during the Jury Final.

The day of the Grand Final of Eurovision 2022, as it were. It was time to walk the meadow path again to get to the Eurovillage. I originally had a plan to be situated somewhere in Parco del Valentino that had somewhat of an adequate view for the purpose of getting some footage for the site. In fact, it was the footage I was most ready to get out of everything else I had filmed that trip. Part of my driving motivation to getting in the queue on time was the sheer fighting intensity of the UK and Spanish Eurofans in their race for the trophy just hours away. There was such a palpable rush in the air and I felt that it could only be satisfied by watching the rise and fall of fan favorites in a fan zone. Standing in that queue, I could feel something like a playful rivalry brewing between fans of the two songs and many other of the frontrunners. Thunder and lightning, it was getting exciting.

The line was very long, very crowded, very under-managed, and extremely hot. People in the queue were made to wait for hours in the blazing Italian sun, shoulder-to-shoulder with one another as the fluid of humans inched forward, comsuming more and more of the space inside the venue. It was so packed and agonizingly anxiety-inducing having to be pressed up against strangers against your will, and at the complete physical mercy of a disorganized crowd. I remember not being able to control where I was moving, and that terrified me for a while. People from the sidewalk began cutting in line toward the security entrance, and as 2 hours had passed and it had become harder to breathe, the doors to the Eurovillage were closed in front of our faces. What the hell? Why? They hit max capacity. The crowd was angry, once again. By this point, it would only be two hours until the start of the Grand Final, and thousands of confused Eurofans from all nations once again had no idea where to go to see the show. There wasn’t much time, and a decision on where we needed to go had to be made.

Back to Rosta it was. With the help of the hotel staff, I was able to get to RAI1 on the TV in my hotel room two whole minutes before the beginning of the show. Where I ended up wasn’t where I expected to be nor was it where I wanted to be, but I still saw an excellent show on the screen. Ukraine won the contest overall and Italy scored 6th place. Results are an entirely different topic of their own – I’ll get to that. The fact that I didn’t get to be in the Eurovillage for the Grand Final was bittersweet. On the bad side, I wasn’t able to be a part of one last party and get some awesome footage for y’all to see of the voting sequence. On the other hand, I got to spend this very important night in the very lovely hamlet that I was calling home. It felt right, despite having come from some wrong circumstances. I hadn’t even mentioned that I found the Eurovision branded Rose and Prosecco at a supermarket in Rivoli. Who mad?

The day after the final, we walked the meadow path for the last time, savoring it. The day was meant for processing some raw emotions from the show’s results, shopping, and gelato. This was also a day we used five of the key six modes of transportation: train, tram, bus, metro, and taxi. We went ahead and checked out the museum inside the Royal Palace of Turin, which was friggin’ epic to say the least. Everything about being inside that castle was so insanely cool and it was feeding the history consumer and fantasy game nerd within me.

A hall inside the Royal Palace of Turin Museum.

The following Monday was meant to hurt. One last espresso with the hotel staff in Rosta that we had become somewhat close to had become a sad departure from our peaceful meadow and the shadow of the glistening Swiss Alps. A piece of my heart will always be left at the tiny train station by the big field, and I hope someday I get to come back. In the meantime, I was headed to San Francesco al Campo to check into our second hotel, and to get Covid tested before heading home. There was one more piece of the Italian puzzle we had to get, and that was seeing the Mahmood concert at Teatro Della Concordia in Venaria Reale.

Mahmood performing at his sold out Ghettolimpo concert at Teatro della Concordia.

The concert was everything I wanted it to be and more. Just like our first night in the Eurovillage, we were surrounded by young Italians who came out to hear some great music regardless of what Eurovision events were happening or not. Alessandro Mahmoud performed some of the hits from his debut album Gioventu Bruciata as well as the sophomore work Ghettolimpo, and he closed the night out with Soldi. Something to me felt like the entire journey within Italy had come full circle: Soldi was how I got entranced by Mahmood’s discography in 2019 and fell in love with the Italian rap music scene, Italy won my favorite show in the world two years later, my favorite Italian artist competed in that same show the year following that, and I ended my trip to the Eurovision city standing among other people who knew the words to Brividi. It was just five hours before our flight home that the concert ended, and I can only truly say that walking out of that last venue left me with a stark feeling of saudade.

Marco drove us to our hotel one last time, and we wrote him a card. We felt the need to thank him personally for being our meaningful guide and helpful friend. I hope one day we’re able to meet him again and he can continue to tell us all about the wonders of Puglia. Maybe that could be a voyage of its own, someday. Drafting this paragraph now, I miss him very dearly.

I’ll continue to feel a longing for my time in the Italian city of espresso and automobiles. One may talk at length about the different types of prosciutto offered at the grocery store or the fact that the morning wind rains dandelion fluff. One might even have a number of things to say about how the modern world and its culture had been woven into the Savoy arcades that line the river Po, and express love of things about Turin that I may never get to see in my lifetime. If one thing remains certain for my experience and that alone, this wonderful glimpse into a world unknown came to me in a promise one year ago when Italy won Eurovision in Rotterdam. I promised to myself that the Eurovision city next year would be my goal destination, and I got to meet a lovely city named Turin. Things may not have gone according to plan to say the least, but coming home just a few days ago, I see that this industrial hub in Piemonte was the platform upon which I stood and felt a light in my core that astounded me: Eurovision makes my world really big. From the open meadow between the hotel and the rail station in Rosta to the electricity and pyro of the Pala Olympico, I felt the hidden truths of the host country illuminating in front of me piece by piece.

Me wearing a Kalush-adjacent hat I found at a discount store.

I’d do it all over again.

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