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Åcon Part One: Refugio

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Åcon Part One: Refugio

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head shot 2010
The months of February, March, April and May are lost to me.  I was grieving, of course, and processing what had happened to my father and mother; but I can’t really talk about that here. What I can remember about those months is the unrelenting weight of learning. I was painfully acquiring new mathematical techniques and physics principles, working on problems for hours and hours and hours every single day.  My bedroom and kitchen table were a whitestorm of failed equations, and though I had dropped every possible obligation and responsibility, I still couldn’t cover all the material in both 60-credit courses. Every day I felt that Jim Carrey and Mike Myers had been horribly miscast in Dumb & Dumber; I could have played both of them in one body.

But there is a little island refugio in that period, a glowing place in my memory, and that’s what I want to share with you. In early May I was Guest of Honour at Åcon (prounced aw-con), a very small relaxacon in the Åland Islands in the Baltic. This convention is the best-kept secret in science fiction and fantasy.  I loved every minute of it.

Åland is an archipelago off the coast of Finland, and technically it is a part of that country. However, Swedish is spoken there. Åcon is conducted in English, which means that I was surrounded by Swedes and Finns and a few people of other European nationalities, and everybody was speaking English and they were speaking it better than I can. There were many discussions of language and its intricacies; I met at least one linguist. I also met a mathematician, a robotics expert, a chemical engineer, a geologist, a couple of physicists, at least one social scientist, some teachers, academics, writers and a translator, various computer people who do computer thingies so arcane (to me) that I don’t know how to describe what they do…well, maybe not every single person was actually a PhD in something neutrally supercrunchy, but let’s just say there was a great density of very clever people.  All passionate, serious, devoted readers of science fiction and fantasy.

And everyone I met was really, really, really super nice.

When I was studying at Bard College so many years ago, I can remember feeling like I had been lucky enough to find a secret door from an uncaring, intolerant world into a place where people were relaxed, nonjudgmental, inquisitive, inclusive, anti-cliquish, and exploratory. The day I graduated I woke up in tears because I had to leave what felt like home to me, a place where I could be myself without having to suit up in imaginary chainmail every day before breakfast, where I could learn and grow without any unnecessary limitations.

Of course I have got used to being out in the cold, and I’ve often thought that by becoming a writer I’ve given myself an excuse to have an outsider viewpoint on the culture around me. Åcon made me feel I’d been invited in to a warm hearth among friends, and it wasn’t merely cosy, but a stimulating environment.  I’d happily have stayed forever.

Because Åcon is a relaxacon (and in fact, it is a place where conrunners go to unwind in between exertions) there was a nice combination of programming and outings around Åland. I’d packed furry hats and coats, but the weather was brilliantly warm and sunny, not a bit like the UK, and the hotel being set right on the water near the ferry port meant that we had a wooded inlet of the Baltic on one side and the entire town of Mariehamn on the other. The environment felt tranquil without being isolated.

The other thing that I hadn’t been prepared for was the food. I was expecting it to be a bit like what I’ve had in northern Scotland or Nova Scotia; i.e., deep-fried and unimaginative. I was mistaken. We had some wonderful food in different restaurants in Mariehamn, and even the buffet meals on the ferry crossing were excellent and varied.

In between the very loose programming stream there were gaps for bus outings to points of interest around Åland. This is one of Cheryl Morgan’s photos of the chocolate tasting we attended, which was held in the old Russian Imperial Posthouse.

cheryl's photo choc tasting

Venezuelan-born Mercedes Urbano-Winquist gave a presentation about how cocoa beans are grown and harvested.  This is a fascinating process and in the case of the best chocolate it involves pollination by a particular variety of mosquito found only in South America. She discussed the making and judging of chocolate after export to Switzerland, and then she gave us a tutorial in techniques in chocolate tasting. We also went into her kitchen and she demonstrated how she makes her original praline creations. Steve and I were particularly touched because Mercedes took a lot of trouble to cater to our children throughout the event. She even gave them mobile phones made from chocolate!

There was another bus outing to Kastelholme. About half the group went off to taste wine at a vineyard; Rhiannon was quite put out when she realised she wasn’t allowed to do this.  The rest of us crossed the road and wandered round the castle. My sons tried on silly hats.

As we were getting back on the bus, a cavalcade of bikers roared into the vineyard car park on some very fine chrome. Some of the guys could have been body doubles for ZZ Top. They were gathering for a charity ride. Just recalling the image makes me smile.
Here is something else that makes me smile:

jukka at Kastelholma by sari polvinen
This is Jukka Halme (photographed by Sari Polvinen). Jukka is living legend in Finnish fandom.  He was the master of ceremonies for several events at Åcon, including a game of his own devising where you have to identify SF movie posters from Poland. Jukka has wit and comic delivery second to none.  I think he is the funniest man I have ever met (and I met Greg Proops once on a TV set, and also Craig Charles from Red Dwarf, and they could not touch Jukka). I’m told he’s even funnier in Finnish.

For anyone reading this who might be wondering whether to support the Helsinki bid for Worldcon, you need look no further than Jukka. He alone is worth the price of admission. Trust me on this.

I am stopping here for now. Can’t fit it all in one post. I have more to say about Finland and SF, and a few more photos. Coming soon; meanwhile, Finncon is underway and I hope everyone there is having a great time...
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