Go to an international convention and what do you expect? Authors, fans, talks, discussions, bookstalls and the occasional film. Fine, no problem. But the anticipation is that it will be held in a grand hotel or conference centre somewhere in a bustling city. True? Not this year it wasn't.
This year's Eurocon was different, with a capital 'T'. This year it was held in the middle of nowhere. And if that didn't make the prospect of getting to and from the Eurocon hard enough, it was held on a small, a quarter kilometre square, uninhabited island. Yet this was one of the most important places in Europe. Of course that small but happy band of Eurocon regulars are well used to importance. The 1997 Eurocon was held in Dublin, a city that at the time was one focus of determining the Irish peace accord. 1999 saw us in Dortmund, Germany's first international convention since re-unification. This year the Eurocon was held in Romania: the last (and first) time it was held in that country was in Timisoara in 1994, a few short years after the revolution that city sparked which brought down the country's communist regime. But this time the Eurocon's venue even more important, far more so than any of these other venues. It took place just inside an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Danube Delta Biosphere Conservation Reserve. Such sites are of scientific - in this case biodiversity and ecosystem function - interest; and, of course, without ecosystem function life itself on our planet (or for that matter on others) would soon become impossible. (As a Romanian biologist told me, 'Romania may be poor financially, but is incredibly rich ecologically.')
Our party, SF book translator Antuza Genescu and husband (SF writer) Silviu with Alan Boakes (a friend of the NW Kent SF Society and the Anglo-Romanian Science & SF Cultural Exchange), met up at Bucharest airport. We were then driven in the committee mini-bus well over 150 kilometres to the Black Sea coastal county of Constanta. Having dropped our luggage at the hotel some 20 km from the convention, we found ourselves at night by the Danube clambering into a wobbling outboard motorised boat, lit only by a Romanian fan's torch and our own wafer LEDs. We could not see it at the time, but we were in the shadow of the 2,000 year old remains of the Roman fort of Capidava which, together with a small peasant hamlet, overlooked that stretch of the Danube. All we could see, across the glimmering water, were the lights of the Eurocon camp as well as hear the thump of its music. All else was dark, there were no nearby street lights; there were no street lights period, nor was there any sky glow from distant cities. (Our hotel was in the second closest town, Medgidia, which itself was not that large.) It was fantastic. The night sky came into its own with the Milky Way spun out in full glory.
Five minutes later we were greeted at the island by two large moored barges and a frontier police launch (the border with Bulgaria met the Danube further up-river). These barges contained cabins below for those not wishing to pitch tents, and their top decks - protected by tarpaulins over scaffolding - on one barge made for a sort of green room centre of operations and on the other an exhibition area for artwork and so forth. Two generators could just be heard on the island providing power for strings of disco tube lights between the trees and tents, a dozen computers, and video equipment. Beyond these, in a small glade, was a multi-video screen, sound desk and other paraphernalia required to front major programme events. Somewhere one direction there was an al fresco camp canteen dispensing meals for those (the majority at any one time) not wishing to cook by camp fire. (Meals were prepared by the mainland landing point and shipped in along with copious quantities of soft drinks and bottled beer.) Somewhere in another direction there was a small tented science centre with computers, video imaging and meteorological logging equipment. Clearly, if we had not known it already, we could see that this convention was going to be truly different.
This year's Eurocon was in effect an extension of Romania's annual summer science and SF camp Atlantykron. It has been held every year for over a decade on this island. As such the Atlantykron camp, run by Bucharest region fans, is very much a lynch pin in eastern Romania's SF community. The Eurocon was to have been held in Calarasi further up stream, closer to the capital, and was to have been a far more conventional Eurocon. However the lead Eurocon organiser tragically died subsequent to Romania winning the 2001 bid in 1999 and so emergency plan 'b' swung into action tacking the Eurocon onto the Atlantykron camp. Much credit for this goes to Sorin Repanovici (though the hand of Alexandru Mironov was everywhere).
Our party initially only dropped in briefly on Atlantykron camp before the Eurocon was due to start. We were to spend the intervening couple of days site-seeing courtesy of my Romanian biologist colleagues (a report of which is being published in the British Ecological Society Bulletin).
Our hotel, the Hotel Sport, though 20 km away (half way to the Black Sea Coast), was also to provide the accommodation for the US GoH's Norman Spinrad and Joe Haldeman, as well as the veteran Romanian writer Ion Hobana (who in his 70s was still sprightly in getting on and off boats), together with one or two other Romanian fans. The name 'Hotel Sport' seemed to us decidedly odd. Even odder for the town's principal hotel, we appeared to reach it by some circuitous back-street route. Daybreak revealed all. As we tottered into breakfast we could see that one side of the hotel effectively consisted of a huge spectators' balcony and stadium box overlooking an athletic and football stadium: not the sort of thing one usually expects as part of a hotel. However, apparently there are a number of these 'sports' hotels dotted about Romania. For Romania, in line with many former Soviet bloc countries, set considerable store in fostering national athletic and sports ability. Indeed at the height of Ceausescu's power there was little TV save for a couple of hours a day of political news and documentary reports, so distractions like sport were popular. As for the hotel's layout, and relationship with the arena, the idea was that the public would arrive at the stadium directly from the town, while the communist party officials and athletes would discretely enter via the tree-sheltered parking lot at the back and the more opulent marble staircase entrance to the hotel proper.
The first day of the Eurocon arrived and we were somewhat surprised that neither Norman or Joe had joined us. "They are staying at the villa by the island," someone said. A villa? Given that there were less than a dozen of us in the hotel, surely we could all have been put up in a spacious villa less than a kilometre from the Eurocon rather than a 40 minute drive away? There were mutterings.., at least that is until we caught up with Joe and Norman. It transpired that they had arrived so late the previous night that they really had not wanted to journey further and so had accepted the offer of more local accommodation. The 'villa', it turned out, was a small abandoned peasant's cottage in Capidava, complete with vociferous guard dog and hot or cold running water. Joe, having had a meal, half a bottle of wine, and presented with a bed was perfectly happy to settle down for the night. His only problem was Norman who apparently regularly punctuated Joe's dialogue with Morpheus by shouting at the dog - which was determinedly dedicated to duty and happy to share this with the World - to shut up! Joe and Norman joined us in Medgidia subsequent nights.
Norman's canine encounter seemed to have made an impression on the Romanian fans as did, in a different way, Norman's reaction to nearly falling off the gangplank when first arriving. (Norman, the Romanian word you were looking for was 'futui'.) However this aside, as GoHs, Norman and Joe were clearly a hit with the Romanians. (Only a score or so or western SF writers have had more than two or three books translated into Romanian, and Norman and Joe are part of this select band. Norman and Joe were also at the 1994 Timisoara Eurocon.) The Eurocon's Special Guests on the SF front included Ion Hobana (also the Atlantykron honorary president and past European SF Society activist) and the Italian writer Roberto Quaglia (a number of whose books have been translated into Romanian, but sadly not English). The Special Guests on the science side were David Anderson of the US Time Travel Research Center, Barry Shavrin (a film producer with the Discovery Channel, UK) and myself (strangely not as usual as a Eurocon SF fan, nor as a UK co-ordinator of the Anglo-Romanian Science & SF Cultural Exchange, but as the UK Institute of Biology's science policy analyst and publisher).
The Eurocon programme was the most fluid of any convention I have ever attended. (The ability to collectively organise has yet to become properly manifest in post-communist Romania so you have to have a philosophical approach to the country before you arrive.) There were numerous programme changes. For instance the closing fireworks were brought forward to the middle of the convention so that the Mayor of Cernavoda (dropping in to dispense local political blessing) could see them. Also no one had thought to ensure that Norman's departing flight would be two day's after the end of the convention: so he had to leave on the middle of the last day so as to travel back to Bucharest. Effectively the only things that happened on time were the three daily themes of space, time and genetics. Here, apart from video films in the evenings, the discussions were led by the special guests with Joe and Norman joining in (as well as having their own break out discussion slots). However this was amply made up for by the enthusiasm exhibited by half of those attending and their searching questions and lively, not to mention some unusual, contributions to the discussions (which at one point included a heavily lubricated durex being pulled over a floppy diskette).
The Atlantykron isolation had several things going for it. One felt one really was in another world away from the humdrum of daily urban life. The Danube and surrounding countryside was beautiful, its tranquillity only disturbed by the occasional gentle chugging of passing giant barges or the warning hoot of the police launch horn as an island swimmer ventured too far out. Yet despite our spatial isolation, appropriately in Clarke's year of 2001, we had a satellite link to the web and so could e-mail anyone on the net anywhere in the World. This I felt was most poignant and I was half tempted to send the man himself a message in Sri Lanka, but given that this year in particular he has probably had considerable unsolicited attention, I settled for sending one to my colleagues at the Institute. It resulted in a prompt request for digitised pictures. This firmly brought home the juxtaposition of our physically camping in wildness isolation yet with the immediacy of cyberspace a click of a mouse away; something that has only been an actuality in recent years. Indeed, we had had a similar experience a few days earlier in Medgidia where we saw a peasant's horse and cart carry melons (as they have for thousands of years) down a dusty street past, of all things, a fully-equipped internet cafe.
While the 'programme' was, as with any convention the principal focal centre, unlike other conventions you could keep track of two or three of the main items from anywhere in the island due to the loudspeaker system. This meant you could laze in a hammock by the Danube and listen to a panel rather than squat on the ground beneath the trees in the programme area. Away from the programme there were book-tents, the afore-said science centre and a number of individual exhibitions. Of these I was particularly taken (reminding me of my youth) by the chap who built model space craft out of bits of junk, and when he wasn't manning his 'stand' his son took over (see picture). Then there were the mud sculptures of castles, flying saucers, a sphinx and one armless Venus: all very creative.
It has to be said that very much in its own particular terms the Eurocon was a success. Though of course there were down points, notwithstanding the poor programme execution. It also needs to be emphasised that attending this year's Eurocon was not for the timid. The sanitary conditions on the island were fundamentally primitive, the chemical toilets having long ago overflowed in the early days of the pre-Eurocon camp. Consequently the convention broke several UK health and safety regulations (and probably a score of US ones). Fortunately the island was sufficiently large for there to be an out of the way latrine zone; though there were no formal latrine constructions... The heat, though less so on the island, was extreme for those not used to it. Day time temperatures off the island were easily over 38°C, and a welcome few degrees lower on it. (Indeed while away on an ecological field visit with local biologists I got heat stroke badly enough to be bed-ridden for 36 hours and consequently saw much of the convention through a mild veil of nausea. Our final day in Bucharest saw temperatures in the shade exceed 42°C!).
From the Romanian fan perspective there were concerns that nearly half those attending were not that interested in SF. They were what the Romanian fans called 'SF tourists' and a hang-over from Romania's Ceausescu's days when one of the few ways to get a holiday was to tag onto a cultural event. Indeed there appeared to be a little animosity from trufans to these 'SF tourists' as the resources used in supporting them on the island could have been used to cover travel costs and subsidise Romanian fans from the other end of the country even if that meant that fewer in total actually attended. (Indeed there were only three from Timisoara and two of those had their travel and accommodation costs met by a grant from the Anglo-Romanian SF Exchange.) However these last failings would not have been noticed by a casual visitor from outside of the country and so did not detract from the ambience or the sense that this Eurocon, though exceptionally different, was still a rather special event. Thank you Romania.
A shorter version of this article, but with photographs, was published in the January 2002 edition of Locus.
For those fans into camping wild, Atlantykron will be held the same time next year. You can either bring your own tent for about $5 a day (and get two meals thrown in), or at a higher price have a small twin cabin on one of the barges. (The English version of the Atlantykron site at www.atlantykron.org does not appear to be operational at the time of writing) If you wish to attend next year's event then get in touch with the webmaster no sooner than three months in advance (otherwise you probably wont get a reply - most Romanian fans aren't into advance organization).
For those wishing a more conventional SF holiday then the Anglo-Romanian Exchange are currently (2002) working on a second International Week of Science and SF for May 2003 in Timisoara (see Locus v43 no 4 Oct 1999 for a report of the first International Week and Roberto Quaglia's review elsewhere on the Concat site). At the time of writing the western GoH will be Ian Watson and the Toastmaster the Italian writer Roberto Quaglia (who is clearly a glutton for punishment). Other Eastern European writers are currently (Spring 2002) being aproached to be eastern GoHs. Romanian SF has zero resources so the organisers, as usual, are looking for game SF authors willing to pay for their own way and to give a couple of talks in return for a unique and enjoyable experience with full translator and tourist guide service with the Exchange organising a light SF infrastructure. Those interested can contact myself in the first instance through Concatentation (or check it out by asking Bob Sheckley (US) or Roberto Quaglia (It) what they thought).
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