Or is it? An expectant crowd watches Eurovision in Umag, Croatia

It was the second Saturday in May. At 8pm, as rosy dusk fell on the Croatian coastal resort of Umag, a lone herring-gull flew over the concrete hulk of the town’s scruffy Shopping Centre, a decaying relic of Yugoslavia dating from 1987. Briefly doubled in the pinkish mirror-panels that clad the complex’s upper floors, the white sea-bird observed the steadily filling town-square beneath its wings, languidly flapping towards the Adriatic sunset.

“Trg 1. svibnja” — 1st of May Square — was rebuilt at the end of the last decade by the socialist-led town council as a livelier counterpart of the nearby, more picturesque Trg slobode (Freedom Square), whose bell-tower has dominated the horizon hereabouts since 1651. 1st of May Square had never known a night quite like this one since mayor Vili Bassanese re-opened it in July 2019. Indeed, neither had Umag, nor Istria — the historically multi-ethnic region where Croatia’s most westerly town (pop. 13,000) nestles close to the Slovenia border.

Local lad Marko Purišić, a songwriter-performer deploying the oddball stage-name Baby Lasagna, had in mere weeks emerged from near-total obscurity to become the clear favourite among bookies, gamblers and analysts to win the 68th Eurovision Song Contest — 1131km away (as the gull flies) in Malmö, Sweden — with his anthemic rocker ‘Rim Tim Tagi Dim’. To qualify for the long-running, much-loved, much-mocked cultural extravaganza, with its global audience in the dozens of millions, 28-year-old Purišić — ex-guitarist in pop-metal outfit Manntra — first had to prevail in the Croatian national selection show.

‘Dora’ is a 24-contender event into which, inexplicable as it seems in retrospect, Baby Lasagna only belatedly sneaked as first reserve when a certain Zsa Zsa pulled out (thus unwittingly earning herself a footnote in Balkan musical history.) In the semi-final Purišić’s inexperience was evident — it was his public debut as a lead vocalist — but also his energy, originality and talent. He found his stride for the final, winning by a record margin and landing more points than his 23 rivals combined.

Told from the perspective of a farm-boy reluctantly about to leave his family, home (and cat) for a new life in the big city — “I’m going away and I sold my cow” —  the Rammstein-inflected ‘Rim Tim Tagi Dim’ bouncily dramatizes a demographic shift familiar to many European countries in the 21st century, as populations become increasingly urbanised and the young abandon the countryside.

Purišić’s achievement is to address fundamentally serious material on both the political and personal-psychological levels (“There’s no going back/My presence fades to black/ Yeah, there’s no going back/My anxiety attacks…”) via a monstrously catchy beat that had resonated across myriad European dancefloors and beachside bars even before the Eurovision final.

His wider, more inadvertent, achievement has been to unite a Croatian people whose ideological/geographical divisions and social frictions — always amplified by the country’s weird boomerang shape — were sharpened by an ill-tempered national election on 17th April. The formation of a new government was announced during Eurovision week, the long-ruling conservative HDZ party led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković opting for coalition with the Homeland Movement, thus allowing the nativist far right into power for the first time. In dire need of good news, Croatians — even those who had previously evinced little interest in Eurovision — found inspiration, escapism and cheer in Baby Lasagna’s meteoric rise to international prominence.

Having failed to crack the Eurovision top ten since 2001 — Croatian popsters Riva, from coastal Zadar, won for Yugoslavia at Lausanne in 1989 with ‘Rock Me’ — they would have been decidedly content with a top-three finish, matching the football team’s result in the last World Cup. But many dared to dream that the bookies and gamblers might prove correct, and that the engagingly self-effacing Purišić — whose skill and confidence had grown with each performance, while he remained endearingly shy off-stage — could return home hoisting aloft the clouded-glass Eurovision trophy.

Most of those watching in the Square cared little about the interlocking toxic controversies that continued to messily rage around this year’s event — chiefly but not solely relating to the participation of Israel in the midst of the Gaza horror, plus the eleventh-hour disqualification of the Netherlands  — all of which are helpfully chronicled by Dave Keating in his ‘Gulf Stream Blues’ substack article What the hell happened at Eurovision? here (Full background on the Croatian entry can be found in Catherine Baker’s essay Don’t cry, just dance: Baby Lasagna, Croatian folklore politics, and the cruel optimism of Eurovision here).

The Umagians’ Saturday-night focus was squarely trained on their unlikely new national hero. The adults present had elected to experience the world’s most-watched non-sport TV show not in their apartments or in a bar, but collectively: a large LED screen had been temporarily installed at one end of the Square, relaying the four-hour programme from Croatia’s national broadcaster HRT starting at 9pm CET. In the 45 minutes before the show started, the ‘Rim Tim Tagi Dim’ video was played perhaps half a dozen times (alternating with a local DJ’s blaringly loud set): Purišić and dozens of game locals acting out farming activities amid the area’s fabled ‘terra rossa’ red soil.

The screen, positioned next to a squat, dramatically-lit palm tree, could ideally have been both significantly bigger and/or higher up: sight-lines proved problematic for those seated, and many preferred to stand (or had no choice, as the council had unexpectedly provided no plastic chairs). Bars on the square also played the show on their walled-mounted TV screens; the busiest, Centar Caffé, decided to observe its usual 9pm closing time, thus forfeiting thousands of euros in revenue for reasons nobody present  — including the bar-staff — could fathom. 

Bacchanalian salvation was close at hand, however, a few metres away at Caffe Bar Circolo: unhandily positioned behind the big screen but most conveniently (and profitably) continuing to serve alcohol until well after midnight. The UK’s saucy entry ‘Dizzy’ triggered bemusement and performatively visible (if mild) disgust among the male, beer-drinking patrons. A reminder that, while left-leaning Istria may be seen in Croatia as a progressive region, the country retains a significant conservative streak with regard to sexual matters.

Out-and-proud London singer Olly Alexander socked over the somewhat forgettable ditty ‘Dizzy’ while cavorting around in a grimy communal shower with a quintet of boxer-dancers — the whole structure seemingly hurtling through space, yielding discombobulating gravitational effects. The result resembled a post-watershed episode of Doctor Who written by Jean Genet and directed by Gilbert & George, culminating with clever rapid-fire editing that made the climax look like a sweaty orgy of heaving bodies. (After Eurovision, around 1am, this same TVs would show the HRT broadcast of Norman Jewison’s 1975 Rollerball, a slam-bang actioner at once unimpeachably macho but also Hollywood’s boldest indictment of bread-and-circuses entertainment.)

A few seconds before 11pm — the Umag sky now black save for a white curve of crescent moon —  it was finally Croatia’s turn. First a video “postcard” in which Purišić somewhat self-consciously ambled around various scenic Umag spots (his trip to Sweden was partly funded by the town council), each one audibly recognised by the crowd. The Square was now jam-packed:  townspeople of all ages — including many noisy, easily-distracted children — and doubtless some curious tourists too. The ‘Rim Tim Tagi Dim’ performance by Purišić  — tattooed, peroxided and kohl-eyed, but also a devoutly Christian homebody with a nice girlfriend — was perhaps rather staid in comparison with Olly Alexander and Ireland’s non-binary, self-described “witch” Bambie Thug, whose song ‘Doomsday Blue’ occasioned a full-blown satanic-demonic genderqueer wig-out (and how the Umag kids loved that one).

But the Croatian entry proved rousingly spectacular in its own right, Baby Lasagna rocking the Malmö arena in white shirt with puffy sleeves and floral-embroidered maroon waistcoat inspired by traditional Istrian costumes. It was of course received like the Second Coming by Marko’s many friends, relatives and neighbours in Umag. Each “whoa-oh” in each chorus was lustily belted out, and the instrumental section towards the end (“DANCE WITH ME EUROPE!!”) triggered an outbreak of a vertical right-arm-pumping in approximate unison with by Baby Lasagna and his on-stage troupe.

After Baby Lasagna concluded his three-minute slot amid blazing geysers of fireworks and deafening waves of acclaim in Malmö and Umag (and many other corners of the continent) the Square’s crowd visibly thinned. But perhaps they had simply popped home to get warmer clothing; many had returned 45 minutes later to experience the protracted announcement of the results — a two-round affair with scores from each national jury given first, then the public “televote” tallies added song-by-song in reverse points-order.

As had been widely predicted, Switzerland dominated the jury-voting: bidding for the country’s first victory since the teenage Celine Dion’s sensational last-gasp triumph in 1988, dynamic non-binary artist Nemo pulled off his ambitiously complex, soaring number ‘The Code’ while scampering around on top of a rotating disc, his vocals gliding from opera to rap with apparently minimal effort. If Baby Lasagna charmingly remained a rough-edged diamond, Nemo was every  inch the polished pro.

But Croatia’s jury-appeal was also unexpectedly strong. Mirroring the song’s crescendo structure, it received the maximum douze points from only two countries, both among the last four to report: Cyprus and Serbia — the latter’s support perhaps surprising to those who suspect that the deep wounds of the 1990 Balkan Wars continue to fester.

Both times, the Square exploded with gratitude; Eurovision-obsessed Iceland’s decision to give Croatia 10 points and Switzerland “only” 6 was also deeply appreciated. Each of the (record-breaking) 22 maximums for La Suisse were, conversely, greeted with groans and sighs. Had they flown too far clear to be caught?

After the jury votes were tallied, Croatia stood in third place on 210, only eight points behind France; the latter’s ‘Mon amour’, delivered silk-smooth by major domestic star Slimane, had been one of the classiest performances of the whole contest. The Umag crowd, knowing quality when they saw it, applauded Slimane generously. Likewise popular: Angelina Mango from Italy — Umag’s complex history is closely bound up with Italy and Italians (it remains a bilingual place with two names: Umag and Umago).

All was still to play for. While Switzerland were way out in front on 365, the bookies gave Croatia a significant edge — in the Square, many smartphone displays relayed the latest fluctuating odds from gambling websites. It was now after midnight, and a buzz of excitement was palpable, adrenalin helping keep the chill of the night at bay; Umag, conspicuously packed with Austrian tourists, had basked in 30-degree sunshine (leavened by a cooling breeze) all morning and afternoon.

These visitors, some drawn by a vintage-car display in Freedom Square, generally averted their gaze from the town’s several conspicuous eyesores: the ugly bulk of the long-closed Hotel Kristal complex on the headland, the sadly dilapidated, weed-strewn swimming-pool complex adjacent to it, the shabby concrete Yugo-brutalism of the still-partially-open Shopping Centre (pre-refurb, 1st of May Square was for decades a much more organically-connected element of this elaborate complex).

Dwelling on such sad vistas, one can certainly sympathise with the likes of Rim Tim Tagi Dim’s protagonist, and others who reckon their future lies either in far-off Zagreb or even —  thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement and Croatia’s accession to the Schengen area last year — beyond national borders. In terms of the all-too-visible structural problems of this theoretically quite prosperous little town (which has hosted an important ATP tennis tournament since 1990) Baby Lasagna’s rise to prominence is certainly timely.

In the end it did indeed boil down to Croatia and Switzerland, the broadcast showing Marko and Nemo in dramatic split-screen as the Swedish hosts dragged out the announcement for maximum suspense. Nemo needed 183 points to win and — as the Umag faithful held their breath, and no doubt some prayed to the town’s patron St Peregrine — Petra Mede said the fateful words…”Two hundred and twenty six points!!!!”

Further, deeper groans from a thousand Umagian chests; agonised facial contortions; fingers pressing foreheads as though Croatia had missed the deciding penalty in a World Cup final shoot-out. But then this quickly gave way to cheering and clapping. Everybody realised that their humble boy had, against colossal odds, done them very proud indeed. Umag was back on the map! (Historical irony: Nemo’s success meant that the final would now be held in Switzerland for the first time since Riva’s year of 1989.)

Up on the big screen the tearful Swiss, making history as Eurovision’s first non-binary winner, received the trophy from 2024’s beaming victor Loreen. Nemo then delivered a pitch-perfect reprise of ‘The Code,’ sporting fellow “enby” Bambie Thug’s black crown of thorns.

After the show finally finished, the ‘Rim Tim Tagi Dim’ video was played — as the lyrics put it —  “one more time, for all the good times”. The fatigued people of Umag chanted along, right arms were duly and vertically pumped, tears were wiped from smiling faces. The fairytale was over; not the perfect ending, but a happy one all the same. Many of us would still be celebrating when the sun came up.