Follow Cornwall to its tip and you arrive at Land’s End. Beyond that lies the mythical, sunken kingdom of Lyonesse. And far beyond that is a small group of islands known collectively as Scilly. I have spent many a happy vacation there. Though they are remote, the Scillies have been inhabited since Neolithic times. On one cliff top I know well there are the remains of stone houses that date back over 5,000 years. In Celtic mythology, in the evening the sun god, Lugh, would lay his spear down on the sea. Those who followed the golden path westward would arrive in Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young.
Of course my ancestors had no idea that what the playful god actually meant by “Land of the Young”, or at least what he was pointing to, was Disney World in Florida, but it was a good dream.
On the west coast of Finland an archipelago stretches out into the Baltic, culminating in a large group of islands known collectively as Åland. Had a Finnish sun god laid down his spear over the sea, it would not have been an inviting path, but a bristling defense. For beyond Åland there is only the enemy: Sweden.
Of course the Finns are not the greatest military nation in the world. For much of their history they have been a conquered people. From Viking times onwards Finland was ruled by Sweden until, in 1808/9, Tsar Alexander I, then allied with Napoleon, conquered the country in a campaign that involved a daring winter march over the frozen Baltic. Finland remained Russian until 1918 when the Finns took advantage of their neighbor’s internal turmoil to declare independence. After independence both Sweden and Finland claimed Åland. A vote of the population was massively in favor of being part of Sweden, but the Finns pointed to maps of the sea bed showing that the islands were clearly connected to their country, and the League of Nations sided with them. Åland has been part of Finland ever since, but the islanders are semi-autonomous with a variety of special privileges, including the right to be officially Swedish-speaking.
The history of Åland is further muddied by the wide-ranging nature of viking settlement. While the inhabitants of Norway and Denmark swarmed over the British Isles, Normandy and even as far as Sicily, vikings from Sweden were as likely to travel east. According to this paper on viking sites in modern Russian, “the closest ties were with the Lake Mälaren region and the Åland islands”. In one very real sense, “the Rus”, the people of Russia, are Ålanders. European politics: it’s complicated.
Why all of this history? Well hopefully it helps to understand why the Åland islands are the natural home of a convention that is a joint effort between Finnish and Swedish fans, and one Ålander. Mariehamn, the capital of Åland, is a conveniently large town part-way between the two countries and the only stop on the route of the Turku-to-Stockholm ferry. Indeed, the ferry company is based in Mariehamn, doubtless taking advantage of the islands’ favorable tax regime. And talking of tax, the other reason for choosing the location is the ability to stock up on tax-free booze during the ferry crossing. (Alcohol sales are heavily government-controlled in both Finland and Sweden.) The islands are supposed to be lower-tax too, though the locals appear to have wised up to the fact that they have a mostly captive audience.
Åcon began in part as a relaxacon for Finnish SMOFdom — a respite from the anime hordes that overwhelmed Finncon — and has slowly developed into a fine little literary convention for Finns and Swedes. Because of the bilingual nature of the membership, all programming is in the language that they have in common: English. It has had four previous incarnations, with the Guests of Honor being Hal Duncan, Ian McDonald, Steph Swainston and Geoff Ryman. This year’s GoH was Catherynne M. Valente, and next year’s will be Tricia Sullivan. You may note a tendency for gender balance, LGBT interests, and an ability to cope with serious drinking. It is no accident that Hal was the first GoH.
I had not been to Åcon before, but the Finns had kept asking me to go, and having Cat as GoH was a huge temptation. Economics almost got in the way, but my generous Finnish pals came to the rescue, for which I am eternally grateful. Huge thanks are also due to Jon Holmes who donated his BA companion ticket to get me to Helsinki and back. I had a fabulous time, and next year I am going back at my own expense. I’ve started saving already.
Although ferries are available from Helsinki, the bulk of Finnish fandom prefers to gather in Turku and take ship from there. The sea voyage is shorter, and the timing slightly less brutal. I stayed in Helsinki with my friends, Otto Mäkelä & Paula Heinonen, and after some issues caused by trying to leave the city at the start of a holiday weekend we arrived in Turku to find the local fans treating Cat and her husband, Dmitri, to dinner at Harald, the now-notorious viking-themed restaurant. Tero Ykspetäjä had already got them to sample the tar ice cream. I added cinnamon beer. Their introduction to Finnish fandom was complete.
The membership count of Åcon is quite low. This year’s 91 was a record. That would make the con a piece of cake to run if not for the fact that it takes place in a remote city where only one of the con committee lives (take a bow, Katarina Norrgård). One of the many pieces of organization required is getting a large group of traveling fans to the islands and back. Fortunately this year’s con chair, Hanna Hakkarainen, works for Tallink’s Silja Line (the name Silja means a mother seal, hence the logo) and the whole process was a breeze.
The ferries are enormous ro-ros with multiple car and passenger decks, and the Baltic was as flat as a millpond for the duration of the convention, so the voyages were pleasant experiences, despite the feeling of being trapped inside a floating, cooled-down version of Reno, or possibly a UK holiday camp. The view, when there is no fog, is spectacular, though after half an hour or so one island tends to look much like another. During the outward journey Ian McDonald tweeted me to say how much he had enjoyed the voyage, and the convention. My only real complaint was that the duty free shop did not have Terva, but I had found Jura Prophecy on sale at Heathrow which kept everyone happy. Also, on the return journey, the ship had bottles of Chinese cabernet sauvignon. I haven’t got around to trying this yet, but I’m looking forward to it. China is a big country, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have good wine-producing regions.
One of the things that makes the ferries seem holiday camp-like is the presence of a live schlager band. I had no understanding of the schlager phenomenon before this trip. Now the awfulness of some Eurovision entries makes so much more sense. The Finns told us that their local schlager tradition is notorious for bad translations of bad British and American pop songs. My brain may never be clean again.
Programming at Åcon is very light and doesn’t start before noon. In theory that’s to allow you time to sleep off the previous night’s imbibing. In practice this isn’t possible because of the outings schedule. This year there were two spectacular trips: one to a chocolaterie, and one to a brewery. Yes, Åland has both, and very fine they are too.
The chocolaterie is based in the far south-east of the islands in a building that used to be the old Russian post office in the days when mail from Stockholm to Helsinki and St. Petersburg came by boat and/or sledge. These days it is kept open as a tourist attraction by Peter Urbano-Winquist, a local man. His wife, Mercedes, is from Venezuela, makes chocolates, and is as well versed in the ways of cacao as the best vintners are in the ways of grapes. There isn’t just chocolate. There are varieties of cacao tree, there are different places where they are grown, and there are complex techniques required to get the very best out of the beans. As I understand it, Mercedes doesn’t make chocolate herself: she sources raw materials from the very best of the world’s manufacturers: companies like Domori, Amedei and Valrhona. From these products she makes pralines, each different flavor having its coating specially selected from the available varieties so as to precisely enhance the taste of the filling.
A full visit to the Amorina Chocolaterie includes a tasting hosted by Mercedes. She starts out by introducing you to a variety of flavors of different types of plain chocolate from her different suppliers, then moves on to her own creations. It is an amazing experience, and one I’m unlikely to have again for a while as the trips are so popular with Åcon attendees that the convention reserves the limited places to members who have not been before. Thankfully the rest of us can go along and sit in the café, and of course buy chocolates.
I know that getting to Åland is hard, and there are probably other places in the world that are as serious about chocolate. But if you are serious about it too, you need to find one of them. This is the real thing.
Craft breweries are, of course, rather more common than boutique chocolateries. Also I am rather less fond of beer than I am of chocolate, particularly if the beer in question is very hoppy or (shudder) served warm. Nevertheless I dragged myself out of bed the day after an epic room party for a trip to Stallhagen. This is a fairly new company, and Johan Anglemark, who knows far more about beer than I do, tells me that they have taken a while to find their feet. Now, however, they are beginning to become recognized as a very fine company indeed. We had a tasting. I can’t say much about the ales and lagers, but their Baltic Porter? — possibly the best porter in the world (and this from a confirmed Guinness drinker).
One of the interesting things about Stallhagen is that they are focusing on beer as an accompaniment to food, not as an end in itself. Our host, Christian Ekström, explained that the flavor structure that you aim for in a beer that is to be served with food is quite different from that which you aim for if it is to be drunk alone. And he (or rather his wife, who is the chef for their brewpub) provided supporting evidence in the form of some fine local produce. My love for the porter may have been in part influenced by the quality of the salami that I ate with it. You can get an idea of the sort of thing they do by this video which features Christian at a Helsinki food fair.
Of course another reason for loving Stallhagen is that they make the beers for Harald. Sadly the cinnamon beer is not available outside of the restaurants.
The Baltic is a very shallow sea (Aloysius Squid, who had gone to the convention with me, complained bitterly about the lack of whales in this supposed ocean). It is also much less salty than the open ocean. This makes it ideal for wreck diving, because any wrecks are both easy to find and well preserved. Christian is a keen diver, and recently he and his friends found a wreck of a merchant ship that contained bottles of champagne and beer. They think they might have found the oldest un-drunk beer in the world. And with a bit of help from chemists in Helsinki they hope to find out what it tasted like and reproduce it. That’s a good excuse to go back next year.
Mention of chemistry reminds me that both of these food venues make real food, not artificial concoctions. Christian, who is a devotee of the Slow Food movement, pours scorn on most modern brewing which, he says, simply involves mixing a bunch of chemicals with water to produce the desired liquid. Somewhat to my surprise, he says that the same is true of honey. Both he and Mercedes source their honey from a local farmer who makes the product the old-fashioned way, using bees.
Maybe there is something ironic about a bunch of science fiction fans having trips out from a convention to sample food that is specifically not made using modern, scientific techniques, but my excuse is that Åcon is a science fiction and fantasy convention. Cat Valente was our GoH. And these two food producers were simply fantastic.
Sorry, what was that? Convention? Oh, yes, where was I?
The venue is Hotell Adlon, which is right next to the ferry terminal. Like many convention hotels it is fairly cheap and cheerful — just comfortable enough for fans not to complain more about the conditions than they complain about the price. Crucially it has a function room that can fit the number of members we have (though not many more). It also has a bar than will open fairly late, and is partially willing to listen to the concom’s requests for large quantities of quality beers and ciders. Also the breakfast is good, and the rooms are comfortable. This year they added wifi throughout, and we only managed to crash it through overloading once.
The downside is that after breakfast food is a bit limited. The hotel restaurant is a pizzeria, and while their pizzas are not too bad, no one wants to eat pizza for lunch and dinner for four days. I never managed to explore very far, but I’m told that there are burgers and kebabs, as well as a grocery store, within easy walking distance (that being the European version of “easy walking”).
Another downside for many attendees is that the hotel bar appears to be the island’s main sports bar. As with all such things, it is hung with memorabilia (and is sadly lacking in San José Sharks material, must correct that). This year the convention happened to coincide with the final weekend of the world ice hockey championships, which is as close to a religious festival as you can get in Finland. The Finns were the defending champions, and those of us with an interest in hockey (me, Jukka and Merja) got to watch the glorious last minute victory over USA in the semi-finals, and the horrible thrashing by Russia in the semis. The rest of the membership spent much of the weekend moaning about how their convention was being ruined by those awful sports fans. Pah!
Anyway, they got programming, and it was good. The con has a nice mixture of very serious literary panels and light-hearted game shows. I got dragged into a team for Ben Roimola’s quiz, which appeared to consist largely of trying to guess the titles of movies from the posters used to advertize them in Poland. I got one right. Half of the movies I had never heard of. The connections round was a little better, though I confess to being stumped by the question for which the correct answer was, “they are all books that Ben Roimola is featured in”. It was that sort of quiz. The audience won.
Another piece of evening entertainment was the trip to see Iron Sky. The Mariehamn cinema let us hire the venue and projectionist for €500, and with a large group of fans that made for a fairly cheap evening out. The cinema was lovely. I’ll talk about the film separately.
My two serious panels were about postmodern fantasy and “kick-ass chicks”. The former was great fun, though of course we were entirely unable to define “postmodern”. The latter, I felt, went less well, but we did start by deconstructing the panel title and going on to talk about strong women characters instead.
I note in passing that Åcon has a serious panel parity problem. Those two panels had one male panelist between them. There were other all-female panels too.
Another panel that I very much enjoyed was Folklore in Fantasy. This one started late because the entire concom had taken Cat, Dmitri and I out to dinner at a local restaurant (you can leave Åcon to run itself, but you can’t steal the panelists without causing disruption). Something that Cat brought up, which we had actually been discussing over dinner, is the different nature of “the forest” in Finnish folklore. Most European folk tales see the forest as a place of danger. You are safe when you are “out of the woods”. But in Finland the forest is a source of food and a place where you can hide when the horrid vikings come calling. Sure there are trolls, but they are less scary than the big, blonde guys with axes.
This, however, brings us back to food. After all, a tourist venue like Åland is going to have good restaurants, right? And no one wants to eat pizza every day. So we explored.
Cat isn’t a big fan of raw fish, but Dmitri is and we prevailed upon Otto & Paula to drive us to Nordic Blues, possibly the world’s only purveyor of Baltic sushi. It was good too, though sadly it didn’t have the quantity or variety of fish I was hoping for. Local fish is expensive, so mainly it was served in maki (rolls). However, there was one nigiri item that was topped with a slice of herring and a parsley leaf. It was delicious, and quite unlike any sushi I had ever eaten before.
Indigo, where we went for the big committee meal, is on another level entirely. It does serious gastronomy. I had the venison carpaccio to start (Åland is blessed with both roe deer and elk in abundance), followed by the crispy smoked duck breast with Portobello mushrooms and sage gnocchi. Yum! And while it is pricey, by the time you convert back from Euros to pounds it is not that much more expensive than going for a curry in London.
This restaurant was also the source of all the asparagus jokes that you may have seen on Twitter. Johan Jönsson is a vegetarian, and was poorly catered for by the menu. Worse still, he doesn’t like asparagus. It was here that we learned that the Finnish words for asparagus and broccoli are very similar, and the Swedish-speaking restauranteurs had got them mixed up. So the menu said “asparagus” in Swedish and English, but “broccoli” in Finnish. Very confusing. Also asparagus is a seasonal delicacy in Åland in the spring. So, like dill pickle in American sandwiches, you always get it in everything, whether you ordered it or not. They even brought us little shot glasses of asparagus soup as a free extra course. Poor Johan took it all in very good humor.
And so to next year. Do I want to go back? Of course I do. I want more of those wonderful chocolates. Also I want to find the salami that Christian served with the Baltic Porter, not to mention a bottle or two of that beer. And I want to visit the Pommern. She’s moored just along from the hotel, and is now a museum ship. Why the excitement? Because she’s an actual, genuine windjammer: the ultimate in sailing ships. Some of you may have eaten aboard the giant Moshulu in Philadelphia. The Pommern, on the other hand, is preserved in its original form as a museum ship, like the Balclutha in San Francisco.
Many of the windjammers, including all of the above, were built on the Clyde in Glasgow. However, they were owned and operated by different companies. The largest of these was the Gustaf Erikson line based in Mariehamn. Because Erikson specialized in these beautiful vessels, and stuck with them long after everyone else had converted to steam, there was a time when Åland had the largest sailing fleet in the world.
I’m talking history again, aren’t I? And boats. Salt water in the veins, you see. And Åland looks very like Cornwall (and therefore like Maine) in many ways. Åland feels like home.
Oh, and for those of you wondering how to pronounce Åland, the closest English translation would be awe-land.
There are photos. Some of them are from the couple of days I had in Helsinki after the convention during which time Otto & Paula took me to see the fortress island of Suomenlinna, and also Helsinki’s answer to Fry’s Electronics.