Fans get ready for Eurovision
Fans from all around Europe invaded the German city of Duesseldorf on Saturday ahead of the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest, Europe's annual pop extravaganza.
"It's great -- the atmosphere, the kitsch, the whole thing. It's a big party," said Els Mahieu, 34, who has travelled from Belgium for the evening contest, watched by tens of millions on TV in Europe and beyond.
"I've been watching (Eurovision) since I was small," said Jean-Pierre Perez, one of a group of 130 diehard French fans to have made the trip to Duesseldorf hoping to see their candidate win.
"I think this year is the one."
Europeans have few reasons for cheer at the moment, but this evening from 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) they will put their feet up, turn on the television and let their hair down for Eurovision, as they have done for decades.
Often cringe worthy but always watchable, the contest is a cherished institution, with 43 nations -- including some from outside Europe -- competing, then whittled down to 25 for the grand final.
"It's amazing. This competition brings Europe together and brings countries together. This is what I went into music for," said Lee Ryan, 27, a member of this year's British entry, newly reformed boy band Blue.
"It's a big holiday, a big holiday for everyone in Europe, with such great singers and beautiful songs. The Eurovision is unique," Ukraine's Mika Newton, 25, hoping to secure her country's second victory, told AFP.
Europe's favourite TV show, and one of the longest-running, is now broadcast not only in Europe, but also in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States, even though they do not participate.
Viewers at home and juries from each of the countries vote for their favourite song.
The country of the winner, announced at around midnight (2200 GMT), gets to host the competition the following year, which is why the 2011 contest is in Germany.
This can lead to problems, however, as when in 1998 Israeli transsexual Dana International won, riling the country's ultra-Orthodox community, who then had to contend with the 1999 contest taking place in the holy city of Jerusalem.
Despite Europe's linguistic diversity, most perform in English, and songs in the language of Shakespeare have won 22 times. French songs have won 14 times, Dutch and Hebrew songs three times each.
Norway's 2011 entry is partly in Swahili.
This year, the song tipped as the favourite is in Corsican -- for only the second time in Eurovision history -- with Amaury Vassili, 21, hoping to win France's first victory in more than 30 years.
"The language is very close to Italian," the tenor told AFP. "There is the same fluidity for singing. And it has a romantic side that is very like Italian."
But he faces some tough competition, not least from spiky-haired Irish twins Jedward and their song "Lipstick", Azerbaijan's duo of Ell and Nikki, Britain's Blue and Estonia's Getter Jaani, a winner of the "Estonia's Got Talent" TV show.
A number from Zdob si Zbub, a group of lively Moldovans in pointy hats -- they say they are "cosmic antennae" -- is also a strong contender, as are songs by Iceland's Sjonni's Friends and from Italian crooner Raphael Gualazzi.
But Germany's homegrown Lena could write history as the 19-year-old tries to become the first ever person to win two Eurovisions in a row, although "Taken by a Stranger" lacks the quirky catchiness of 2010's winning "Satellite."
Eurovision "is not serious. It's happy, you know. I think we have to enjoy it," Lena said.
"Maybe the rest of the world can watch it and do something like we do, can do a Worldvision. All countries just having fun."
© 2011 AFP