Kontakt was the 2012 Eurcon, held in Zagreb, Croatia. Yes, that’s right, that’s the city that bid for a Worldcon in 1999. They lost to Melbourne then, in part because people knew so little about them. I got a chance to attend a convention there, and to find out what these Croats were really like.
Before I talk about the convention, however, I’d like to put things into context. Croatia is a country about the size of Wales. The population is just over 4 million. In contrast the UK has a population of over 62 million. Yet Zagreb has an annual convention about the same size as a typical Eastercon, and their Eurocon was similar in size to the recent London-based, GRRM-boosted Eastercon. There are also annual conventions in several other Croatian cities. And if that wasn’t enough, this is a people that, twenty-five years ago, was living under a Communist dictatorship. Less than twenty years ago they were fighting for their independence, and lives, against Slobodan Milošević’s Serbian army. I’m amazed that they manage to run conventions at all.
Mention of the Serbs reminds me that this was a Eurocon, open to people of all nations. Following the atrocities of what is known as the Homeland War, Serbs are not terribly popular in Croatia. But the country has been multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic, for centuries. The original inhabitants, the Illyrians, have been invaded by Celts, Romans, Slavs and Turks. They have been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a puppet Nazi state. Part of the country was given to Italy after WWI, and after WWII it became part of Yugoslavia. One of the most famous Croatians in history, Nikola Tesla, was an ethnic Serb. Balkan politics is way more complex than the “with us or against us” politics in which the Internet tends to deal. Thankfully there was no sign of ethnic tensions at the convention. The very many different people of Europe were united by a common love of literature.
So what was I doing there? Well, as soon as I found out that the convention would be in Zagreb I wanted to go. I bought a membership when I was in Stockholm last year. Then the economic crisis hit my business and I could no longer afford the trip. The Croatians wrote to ask me if I’d like to be on panel, and when I explained that I wasn’t going they offered to make me a Guest of Honor and put me up for free. I had some United points that were valid on Croatia Airlines, so off I went.
I spend five days in Croatia staying at the home of my new friend Mihaela. She has an apartment in central Zagreb which she shares with her husband, Bernard, their son, Ignjat, and their dog, Gala, who took an instant liking to me. There’s a biker bar next door, an Irish pub down the road, and a tram line that runs down the street. It was all very pleasant. Well, apart from the apartment being on the 4th floor, but I needed the exercise because Croats appear to eat very big breakfasts.
Talking of food, the in-flight magazine on Croatia Airlines had a major feature on the food of Istria. That’s one of the major regions of the country, and the one closest to Italy. It is just south of Trieste. I asked Mihaela if she could find me an Istrian restaurant to try, and that resulted in this enthusiastic post. Cat Valente got all excited about the mistletoe schnapps, and as a result the con chair, Petra Bulić, spent Monday morning hoofing it around the city in search of a bottle. That’s a measure of just how hard the convention committee worked to make us welcome.
(Of course after all that, the day I was due to leave for Finland a client asked me to do some work urgently that morning when I was supposed to be packing, and I forgot something important. Fortunately, thanks to my friend Marjorie, and Paul Cornell, the bottle was delivered safely to Cat before she left the UK.)
The most obvious cultural difference about Croatian conventions is that they start late and run late. Kontakt had no programming before noon on any day, but serious panels went on late into the night. There are advantages to this. Those of us who had imbibed enthusiastically the night before had plenty of time to get their heads together the following morning. Also on the Thursday and Friday anyone who had to work during the day could get to sample some of the con. However, I shudder to think what the folks who demand 7:00am programming at Worldcon would make of it. Also having serious programming in the evening reduces the space for game shows and the like.
This being a Eurocon, programming started on the Thursday evening and ran through until Sunday night. I got the impression that SFerakon, the local Zagreb event, starts on Friday evening. The usual location is a university building, but that wasn’t available for the full duration of the con so we started out in a hotel. That seemed fine, but it wasn’t until we got to the usual location on Friday evening that the vast bulk of Zagreb fandom turned up. Like fans everywhere else, the Croats are creatures of habit and take some shaking out of their set ways.
Had I been in charge of program, I might have put Charlie Stross’s GoH talk on at the weekend. His event was packed out in the hotel, but it might have been even more packed out in the usual venue. Tim Powers and Russian author, Dmitry Glukhovsky, got Friday night slots at the main venue. Local GoH Darko Macan got Thursday evening with Charlie. There were no official GoH events on Saturday or Sunday, though Tim did a solo panel on Saturday evening. I found this odd.
By the way, I had very little formal programming. My job at the convention was to find out about Croatian fandom and tell the world, which is what I’m doing.
The cracks in the organization, of which there were very few, mostly concerned ways in which Eurocon is different from SFeraKon. Normally they don’t have the hotel, and managing it was a new experience. Normally they have only one foreign GoH. This year they had four, and finding sufficient experienced minders for them proved a challenge. I think all of the GoHs got mislaid at some point, partly because they didn’t each have someone sticking to them like glue, and partly because Dmitry’s publisher kept dragging him off for yet another PR opportunity.
I was half an hour late for a panel. So was Dmitry, as he was with me. We knew we were late, but no way were we going to walk out of a TV studio.
Yes, you heard that right. You may remember that I have been very impressed with the PR done by the Finns. The Croats are an order of magnitude better. On the Thursday the con venue was full of reporters, both fan and professional. I was interviewed three times, twice on camera. One of those interviews founds its way into this report.
I was interviewed again on camera after the dead dog party. You can find that interview here.
Saturday, however, was different. On Saturday Dmitry and I were whisked off to a TV studio to record an episode of Drugi Format, a cultural chat show. We had the whole show to ourselves — about 45 minutes of it. You can see it listed in the broadcast schedules here (see the right hand sidebar for details).
Of course I had never been on TV before, and I was quite nervous. However, everyone was very nice. I got a full make-up job from a professional, and the host, Vlatka Kolarović, was really charming. More importantly she structured her questions in such a way as to give us every opportunity to give good answers. Even when she asked the obvious dumb questions, such as “isn’t science fiction just for boys?” she did so in such a way as to allow us to put the record straight.
I have not seen the final show, but some of the Croatian fans have and apparently I did OK. The main thing I did wrong was not smiling enough, which is probably because I was concentrating hard on what to say. And of course filming ran late, so we were half an hour late for our panel.
So how does SFeraKon manage this sort of PR coup? Partially it is because SF&F literature has way more respect from the population at large than it does in, say, the UK. But mainly it is professional skills at work. Mihaela is a PR consultant. This stuff is her job. She knows who the journalists are, and what sort of stories they want. As long as she’s around to manage them, good PR will happen.
Sadly a lot of this is dependent on who you know. You can’t just drop a PR person into a new environment and expect her to produce instant results. But if I were in charge of the London Worldcon I’d still want Mihaela on board as an advisor.
As far as GoH management goes, what Kontakt needed was one host per GoH, and a printed schedule for each GoH that they could carry around with them. The simple way to do the latter is to stick it on the back of their convention badge. Neither of those things, however, will save you from TV. Some things are just likely to over-run, and in such cases you don’t schedule your GoHs for panels in the following slot.
The one other program mix-up I noticed was a result of the unique nature of Eurocon. You get all sorts of fans at the event. Some of them have been involved in running Worldcon. Others come from a fandom where the annual national convention attracts 50 people. Standards and expectations differ.
What happened in this case is that I turned up for a presentation about the 2013 Kiev Eurocon only to find the Ukrainians insisting that they had swapped their program slot with the next item — Darko Macan’s “Cartoon History of Croatian SF”. But none of the convention staff were aware of this, no announcement had been made, and Darko was nowhere to be seen. The Ukrainians really should have known better, but this sort of thing can happen to you at a Eurocon. Eventually things went as per the program, but by that time I had wandered off to listen to Powers.
Darko’s presentation, by the way, was apparently hilarious, but as I knew very few of the people he was caricaturing I missed out on a lot of the jokes. What I can say is that he’s a very good cartoonist, and can manage an audience really well. Having the con in a university building meant that the rooms had blackboards and chalk available. Powers did some really good chalk sketches too.
The program itself was interesting and varied, including both presentations and panel discussions. Mihaela tells me that Croatia has almost no tradition of panel discussions, so arranging them was a new thing they had to learn. They did pretty well. Some had too many people on them, but the moderators did a good job. Thankfully this new idea went down well with the fans, so I’m guessing that panels will become a regular event at SFeraKon in future.
Some of the individual presentations were very interesting. I enjoyed Marko Fančović’s session about Moebius (and was thrilled to be able to borrow his slides for the panel that Tim Maughan and I did at Bristol). Milena Benini’s presentation, titled “Women with Swords and Girl Cooties” was superb. (Marko and Milena are husband and wife. I apologize for any domestic dispute I may have caused.) There were many presentations I wish I could have gone to, including Milena on Joanna Russ, and the Darko Suvin panel.
In addition to the more serious panels there were some participatory events. Quite by accident I stumbled across Grunf’s Workshop, which is named after a character from the Italian comic book, Alan Ford. Grunf is a famously incompetent German inventor whose ideas generally fail spectacularly. The Workshop is a regular SFeraKon event that has a lot in common with the TV show, Junkyard Wars. For this year the contestants, given only paper cups, plastic spoons and elastic bands, were asked to build a catapult that would fling a small plastic cow at a target. Amazingly one group actually hit the target with their second shot, and sailed far beyond it with the third.
The program website was a bit confusing as far as the schedule was concerned until they got the PDF of the grid up there. It was, however, very informative otherwise, especially for foreign visitors. There was a program app available for iDevices. I found it a bit crashy, but how many big conventions have such a thing?
The dealers’ area was well populated and had a good variety of merchandise, with books dominating. The art show was a bit thin, but you can only work with what you have submitted. I missed the masquerade, but there were some great costumes on show over the weekend.
The ESFS Award ceremony ran efficiently and to time, though the Croats told me afterwards that they found it a bit slow. Clearly we need them in charge of Hugo ceremonies. You can find a list of the award winners here.
A tradition of SFeraKon is that all members get an anthology of stories by local writers. Obviously membership prices go some way towards covering the cost. It is an interesting way of promoting local writers. For the Eurocon the entire book was translated into English, and there are some great stories in it. I’ve promised Karen Burnham an article about it for the Locus Roundtable.
Talking of language, much of the program at a Eurcon is in English because that’s the only language that the majority of attendees have in common. There’s usually some programming in the local language as well, but foreign visitors are well catered for. The Croatians went one better. For a few Euros extra they offered to collect foreign visitors from the airport, and return them after the convention. That was remarkable.
Because I was a GoH, and staying with Mihaela, I didn’t get to experience the convention the way a foreign visitor would, so I asked Carolina Gomez Lagerlöf for comments. She chaired last year’s hugely successful Stockholm Eurocon, and has a lot of experience of working on Eastercons and Worldcons. She was full of praise for the Croats, and so am I. I don’t think that they are up to their ambition of running a Worldcon just yet, but with a bit more experience of running events like Eurocons, and helping out in London in 2014, they could learn the skills.
Huge thanks are due to Mihaela, Petra, Tomislav my official dinner date, Goran my driver and tour guide, and everyone else who made my stay in Zagreb so enjoyable. I’m guessing that most SFeraKons have programming only in Croatian, but I am thinking of going back next year. The Eurocon is in Kiev and the week before SFeraKon, so I’ll be out that way anyway.
Some photos follow. They begin with some images from a city-wide art installation: a model of the solar system with the various heavenly bodies to scale, both in size and distance from each other.