19 - 25 May, 2003, Timisoara, Romania. Jonathan Cowie reports on one of the rarest of international events in the SF calendar with Eastern European SF writers and personalities meeting their counterparts from the West. An event for which members of the Concatentation team were pleased to be one of the sponsors.
The 2nd International Week provided an all too rare opportunity for a small band of a little over 50 SF authors, personalities and fans from several countries to interact. Especially valuable was the chance for those from Hungary and Romania to get together with their counterparts from Western Europe. For although the Iron Curtain has fallen from across Central and Eastern Europe, there still remain economic barriers which are just as physically restrictive to Eastern Europeans as the former political ones in terms of their travelling outside of Central Europe. And so it was that the 2nd International Week's Guest of Honours, Ian Watson (English SF author) and Vince Docherty (the Scot Worldcon organiser and fan guest), during a hot May were able to meet their Eastern counterparts, Danut Ungureanu (Romanian author) and Mandics Gyorgy (Romano-Hungarian writer standing in, sadly, for an ill Istvan Nemere , a Hungarian author of over 30 novels). All gathered under the auspices of Toastmaster Roberto Quaglia (the Italian writer and currently Vice-President of the European SF Society) once, that is, Roberto found the venue... This last resulted in the man arriving late and an impromptu stand in by my good self on his behalf at the opening ceremony, in Orizont's hall; Orizont being the literary journal of the Timisoara branch of the Romanian Writers Association, and their support in providing an excellent venue was all the more welcome because of the Association's appreciation of the event. Hence I found myself up front alone with Ian and Cornel Ungureanu the President of the Timisoara branch of the Writers Association (and no relation to Danut) facing assembled SF personae and members of the city's press.
Press coverage of the event was considerable. Apparently there was a short 'and finally' news item on the national TV news about the event, but we were aware (from numerous interviews) of regional and local TV coverage, radio and daily regional newspaper coverage. Consequently buying papers and having articles translated for us while we drank coffee became a daily morning ritual. (It should be noted that the coffee in Central Europe has improved in leaps and bounds since the early days since the fall of the Iron Curtain and indeed since the 1994 Timisoara Eurocon.)
The Week Monday to Friday consisted of informality, interviews and tourism during the day. Following the afore said extensive morning coffee period - which also enabled fanzine editors to interview the guests - in the pleasant pedestrian roadway of the Timisoara's main boulevard, visitors had the choice of three tours of the charming Mediterranean-styled city laid on by the local H. G. Wells SF Society and which covered 'myths & legends', 'the 1989 revolution' and 'a cafe bar tour' respectively. During the former we discovered that Timisoara was the first city to have public electric street lighting and also was the home to non-Euclidean geometry. During the latter we discovered the joys of 'Red Paradox' wine and promptly drank the Tunnel club dry of this vintage in just two days. In the early evenings we were treated to a couple of hours of SF convention programming before retiring to the Grizzly restaurant bar where east and west could interact on a one-to-one basis. During this time financial parity was maintained between the disparate economic groupings by a variety of sponsors, including that of the Welsh SF Association (it was most symbolic for SF folk of one of Europe's western countries to so support an event held in one of its most eastern countries). A number of us on the Concat team were pleased to have been slated to support the other evenings. The conversation was naturally wide-ranging but of interest to us in the West was the discovery that the SF communities from western Romania existed almost as if they were from a separate nation from their eastern Romanian colleagues. Indeed the two International Weeks have been the country's main bringing together of these independent communities in recent years. This time around matters were helped by an eastern Romanian, Traian Badulescu (Anticipatia editor), being on the organising Committee with the western Romanians: Cristian Koncz (President, H. G. Wells), Antuza Genescu (SF book translator), Silviu Genescu (author) and Liviu Pirvan (who himself has had a book of poetry published). In addition to the organisers there were other eastern SF luminaries present. These included the Romanian authors Ovidiu Pectu and Marcel Luca, Peter Michaleczky and colleague from the Hungarian SF publishing house Kalandor, as well as a particularly talented young artist Mihai Badila whose work adorned the Week's meeting hall. Fortunately for those of us from the West much of the proceedings were in English and translators were always around if needed.
Then there were the mid-week highlights. Perhaps the best of these was a one-day coach trip 40 km to the Hungarian town of Jimbolia located just the Romanian side of the Serbian border. (Many borders in Eastern Europe do not delineate between ethnic groupings which is part of the reason for the region's recent turbulent history, though for the most part peoples here get on very well.) In Jimbolia we met the Mayor (the Hungarian Gabor Kaba) before having a tour of the town and its half dozen cultural centres and museums: something that shames many similar-sized western towns who have little to compare. Of special interest to the writers present was a very smart wing for local writers to meet and socialise. In return for the hospitality one of us (myself) gave a space slide presentation to the local community who packed into town hall. After, we were whisked off for a splendid lunch along with, strangely, the local border guards (for whom we presume the local officials owed favours but who added a little colour to the proceedings).
The other mid-week highlight was the book and magazine launch that took place in Timisoara's central citadel cum castle. The Spanish/Dane, Dan Heidel, generously sponsored the drinks and had the brilliant idea of placing small candles on either side of the marble steps leading up to the first floor hallway where the launch was to take place. The effect was quite spectacular. The main book being presented was Caduouri de Craciun (Christmas Presents) by Sergiu Somensan. This was introduced by Silviu Genescu, as Sergiu could not be there himself, and was described as a collection of SF shorts exploring core SF tropes: extraterrestrials, time travel and so forth. Traian Badulescu brought along recent editions of Anticipatia which is Central Europe's longest SF magazine (since 1955 (contrary to the entry in Clute)). Finally I was volunteered to distribute copies to all present of the splendid US magazine of short fiction Fantasy and Science Fiction. This donation from FSF was particularly welcome. Not only did it affirm involvement in the Week from our North American cousins, but it contained The Refuge Elsewhere short story by Robert Sheckley, inspired (the man himself confirmed during the week by e-mail) by his visit to Romania for the 1st International Week in 1999.
There was much else going on, but particularly intriguing was small-firm computer expert Dan Heidel's early-evening talk on SF on the internet. Not only was it informative to SF on-line fans but by recording his searches on video he was able to play these back so demonstrating to those less familiar with the web its potential. A much valued experience for many Eastern Europeans as the internet is still largely only accessed by the 'intelligentsia' class (the social structure in Romania very much had such a class before the fall of the Iron Curtain), though the young (if their parents can afford it) are catching up fast. Also, even if you can afford the internet in Romania, broadband is still very much a rarity. Consequently Dan's presentation was an eye-opener for many.
The weekend's arrival saw a full-blown, single stream SF convention with talks from the guests, films and slide shows. A video media quiz with the theme music and opening credits jumbled of 40 programmes was of great interest. Attendees were divided into two with Scotland & Timisoara versus The Rest of the World. The Westerners on each team mainly helped compile the answers while the Eastern Europeans got a taste of the range of SF we get on TV. This programme item was donated by the London based League of the Non-Aligned (LOTNA) SF Society, one of many SF groups and individuals supporting the Week. The score, after the Rest of the World suffered a penalty point for misbehaviour, ended up as Scotland & Timisoara getting 50 out of a possible 80, while The Rest of the World lagged with a miserable 49. Danut Unguranu's guest talk focused on the evils of technology and materialism, and for some might have been a little uncomfortable. However it is important to remember that Eastern Europe has come out of a period of decades devoid of adequate food, technological benefits and the material necessities and luxuries that we in the West take for granted. The problem is that Romania (and other Eastern European countries) is in real danger of losing its cultural and social roots. Timisoara even has a McDonalds which sits oddly next to the Opera House and down the way from a splendid cathedral. So Danut's talk there struck a chord and stimulated much discussion.
Vince Docherty's presentation naturally focused on what it was like to run the 1995 Worldcon but equally focused on the forthcoming 2005 Worldcon. Vince expressed the hope that the Worldcon would not be seen as a Scottish Worldcon but a European one, and he stressed that his team were making efforts to ensure that fans from Eastern Europe had access. Indeed, to that end a number of the Romanians involved in running the 2nd International Week would be helping the Worldcon assist their fellow nationals attend. Vince himself added his own colour, and indeed his own international dimension. Not only is the man a Scot, but he lives in the Netherlands and currently spends much of his time working in Nigeria. Consequently those of us who only had to change flights once to get to Timisoara had nothing to complain about compared to Vince's five changes using six flights; and he had to do it all again in reverse for the return leg.
Of everything through the entire Week, the star presentation had to be that of the Ghost of Honour H. G. Wells himself. To be fair, a time machine was not involved - though the presentation did make reference to events yet to take place at the 2005 Worldcon - but an 80 year old suit from the Opera House did play a part as did Ian Watson. Ian revived his 1987 (BECCON UK National SF Convention) Wells persona with a new, well-researched presentation. Not only did he play the part well but he twice ad libbed. First, when a brass band marched by outside (it had until then been quiet all week) and he thanked them for its welcome, and secondly, when he implored the locals to turn on the air-conditioning without using the term 'air-conditioning' of which, of course, Wells himself would be unfamiliar. He failed to get the message across and so slowly stifled in the borrowed suit. It had to be said that without the air-conditioning in the Hall the westerners roasted while with it the local appeared to shiver so an uneasy compromise continually seemed to hold sway.
So was the 2nd International Week a success? Virtually everyone, perhaps with the exception of a few of the hard-pressed organisers, seemed to have what can only be called an inspiring time. What's more certainly while the numbers at the heart of the Week were (deliberately) small, physical encounters such as at Jimbolia, meant that far more were touched and the extensive press coverage and subsequent fanzine articles in Romania and Hungary (and even here in Concatenation) means that the goings-on in Timisoara would ripple out to reach many more. The big question remains as to whether there will be a third International Week? This is unlikely due to organiser burn-out, but if there is then it will probably take place following the 2005 European Worldcon in 2006. Why might it happen? Well, apart from the inspiring time had by all, because so many in the SF community both professional and fan from so many countries contributed resources and goods in kind. With such momentum something is bound to happen, the rest is up to the locals. Others need to take up the organization batton.
Pictures of the 2nd International Week can be found on Roberto Quaglia's web page. A shorter version of this article but with pictures of the book covers of the publications being launched has been published by the US magazine Locus. Finally, a short report of the event, written by Ian Watson, has appeared in the June 2003 issue of Ansible.
For the timetable for the 2nd International Week click here and the Progress Reports click here
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