How was Eurofurence 8?
The short answer:
It was wonderful, and I don't say that just because I was guest of honor.
The long answer:
I wandered into #Furry on IRC way back in January. The very moment I showed my face I was pounced upon by someone named Cheetah. "Hello, Uncle Kage!" he sent. "I am the chairman of Eurofurence. Would you be interested in being our guest of honor this year?"
Naturally I was dumbfounded. I had heard about Eurofurence, of course, but I never thought much about it since it was half a world away. Imagine how flattered I was, and how quick I was to accept the invitation. I only discovered later that Cheetah had not been able to find anyone else to be his GoH and had been sitting despairingly on IRC when I happened by. "Oh, look, it's that Uncle Kage! He'll go to anything!" Well, I was still flattered anyway.
They had held EF7 in an old castle in Germany, although to my (slight) disappointment they were moving it this year to a youth hostel in hill country east of Frankfurt. It didn't sound as classy as a castle, but on further thought, it sounded a good deal less damp and drafty. The pictures on their web site were quite beautiful. The place looked to be out in the country, a rustic setting that made it look somewhat like Feral! in Canada, only with fewer mosquitoes.
This was to be my first trip to Germany. I was a little bit worried traveling for the first time to a country where I did not speak the native tongue, but I had been assured that "most everyone" over there understands at least a bit of English. Just to be sure I had practiced a few key phrases:
"Ich bin ein dummer Amerikaner und ich spreche kein Deutsch." (I am a stupid American and don't speak any German.)
"Wo ist die Toilette?" (Which way to the can?)
Wanting to be a good guest, I helped Cheetah find a flight for me that was considerably cheaper than what he had budgeted. The only downside was that it would be an overseas redeye flight with a stopover, but at least that stopover would be at London's Heathrow, which I had always wanted to see.
Turns out the overnight flight wasn't so bad. Heathrow, though, was an ungodly nightmare.
Other than a squalling infant that some couple thought would be appropriate to bring along onto a sleeper flight, the ride from Philadelphia to London was rather tolerable. British Airways thoughtfully provides such things as extendable leg rests and (gasp!) an actual adjustable headrest so that the airplane seat transforms into something nearly conducive to sleeping. There was a little TV screen in the seat ahead of me that showed a real-time map indicating the plane's position. I would sleep a bit, wake up, notice that we were still over the North Atlantic, and then doze off again. When next I woke up the map showed that we were just passing over Cork in Southern Ireland. The sun had come up by then and I caught my first glimpse of the Emerald Isle. It didn't look as green as they make it look on the commercials. In fact, it looked exactly like it looks when you're flying over Southern Ohio, only with an ocean next to it.
We crossed the Celtic Sea and approached London. We circled for a bit due to ground delays. It was amusing to see the line on the map indicating the plane's progress looping over and over itself, but sadly all of the cool things there are to see remained on the opposite side of the plane.
I had been told that when I arrived I had to go from Terminal 4 to Terminal 1. That didn't sound bad. I asked the lady if I might walk it and she burst out laughing. "It's a rather long shuttle ride," she said as she gave me my ticket, "but you'll also get your walk in."
How right she was. The plane spat us out at Terminal 4. I was not feeling well because I had been given some wine from Godawful Vineyards before going to sleep. British Airways, however, had been thoughtful enough to provide passengers with a little toothbrush and a twentieth of an ounce of toothpaste, so I was at least able to brush the little sweaters off of my teeth. It took me about ten minutes of following an endless series of signs to the "Flight Connection Center," where I got to go through a metal detector at H.M. Customs to make sure I was not smuggling anything dreadful into the country. I was sort of expecting to see some sort of jolly Bobby-looking fellow in a smart uniform, but every single agent there was East Indian.
After the Endless Walk to the Flight Connection Center I got to wait in line for the Endless Shuttle Ride to Terminal 1. It turns out that whereas Terminal 4 is in London, Terminal 1 is located on the Isle of Wight off the coast of Scotland. Many of the people on the shuttle were speaking German. I got to say "Bitte!" as I surrendered my seat to an elderly lady, who replied with a soft but cheerful "Muchos Gracias." But the German people thought it was very cute and smiled at me a lot. After a riotous and terrifying drive on the wrong side of the road ("Oh God, look out, that truck is turning right into our ... er, never mind.") which actually took us through the airline baggage handling area under the terminal (I guess they wanted to show it off) we eventually arrived at Terminal 4. My flight was listed on the monitor but had no gate next to it. It said simply, "Wait in terminal." OK. I sat down to read a copy of Anthrolations I had brought along, and glanced up after every paragraph or two at the monitor.
"BA68, Frankfurt. Wait in terminal."
"BA68, Frankfurt. Wait in terminal."
"BA68, Frankfurt. Wait in terminal."
"BA68, Frankfurt. Wait in terminal."
"BA68, Frankfurt. Boarding."
It didn't say where at first, but I realized that the screen switched back and forth between "Boarding" and "Gate 12." It switched every 20 seconds or so. I ran to the gate and was cheerfully sent down a jetway ramp that took me to.....a shuttle bus waiting to take me to my plane, which apparently was back in London at Terminal 4. They drove us there and dropped us off next to a plane that had been quarantined way out on the tarmac, with some rickety stairs leading up to the rear passenger door. Maybe they couldn't get the front door open.
I had my first glimpse of the English Channel. We crossed at Calais, and I got a look at the beaches of Dunkirk. I couldn't help thinking of how that must have looked sixty- two years earlier, and how I was following pretty closely the route flown by my grandparents' kin when they helped to liberate Europe. It was a quiet reminder to me that there were a few things that were best left unmentioned upon my arrival if I did not want to embarrass my hosts.
Those hosts were on my mind as I flew over Belgium and into Germany, crossing the Rhine for the first time. I wondered what sort of reception I would have. "Uncle Kage" was not very well known in Europe. How would folks take to my humor, particularly since much of my presentation plays upon the English language? And for that matter, how would I be received at the airport? Traditionally, guests of honor are shuttled by the "fan with the van," even at larger cons. With chauffeured stretch limousines meeting its guests of honor at the airport, Anthrocon held the distinction of the classiest greeting among Furry Fandom...
...until I arrived in Frankfurt.
The theme of Eurofurence this year was very "Men in Black." It centered around the Furry Intelligence Agency (the FIA), a secret government organization created to monitor these bizarre half-human creatures. I had been invited to the conference as America's foremost scientific authority on these beings. It was a cute idea and I rather liked it, but it was furthest from my mind as I plodded wearily through Customs (waved through by a bored inspector with a mumbled, "Ja, Ja, wilkommen").
I was met by three imposing-looking gentlemen in black suits, with black fedoras and dark sunglasses. "Dr. Konway?" the burliest of them said in an appropriately gruff German accent. "Come with us, please."
They took my bags, flanked me and escorted me out of the terminal. To my astonishment I found a small army of these men in black waiting for me. Behind them was a vintage 1960 silver Mercedes Benz with fender-mounted flags bearing the FIA logo. Ahead and behind were two large, black SUV's with the agency logo printed on the doors. A red carpet led up to the rear door of the Mercedes. After being checked out by a security dog, I was invited into the back (where a box of cigars had thoughtfully been provided) and the procession departed.
We entered Autobahn 66 with the black jeeps ahead and behind, the agency flags snapping smartly on the fenders. I sat rather regally in the back, quite enjoying the treatment, and enjoying even more the astonished gaping of the people driving past us.
My driver and bodyguard were delightful conversationalists on the way and helped take my mind off the fact that we were driving 90 MPH in a vehicle that had been built before seat belts became all the rage. They pointed out ruined castles on the way, something that I was quite unused to, and other charming pieces of scenery. We kept passing signs pointing to Ausfahrt, which I imagined must have been an enormous city since it had five exits in a row that led to it. It was only on the way home that it was politely pointed out to me that "Ausfahrt" is the German word for "exit."
We got off the Autobahn in very picturesque German farm country. It reminded me very much of Vermont, with extensive woods and open fields dotted here and there with tiny hamlets. The roads kept getting smaller and smaller, until at last we were weaving our way through a pasture on a paved road that was approximately 150 cm. wide, and there was traffic coming in the other direction. I can only chalk it up to masterful German engineering that they were able to fit two cars abreast on a road no wider than a coach class airplane seat.
As we approached the little village of Hilders the procession halted. Several of the ominous Men in Black got out of the SUV's front and back, and before my astonished eyes they affixed blue German police-style rotating lights to the roofs of the vehicles and then proceeded Code 3 to the site of the gathering. With the guards keeping watch, my Mercedes pulled up to the door. The red carpet was once again rolled out, and I entered in grand style. Eurofurence hence wins the award for the most utterly classy (and utterly imaginative) greeting for a guest of honor, and it will take a lot of work for anyone ever to top it!
Of course, it was at this point that I learned that the FIA had me on their Most Wanted List for being in league with certain unlawful ferrets, and that this whole scheme had been concocted as a ruse to arrest me. Eek!
But apart from being arrested, I proceeded to have fun. The gathering was held at a large youth hostel in a region known as Oberbernhards. It was something between a cheap hotel room and a Feral! cabin. But then, one does not need many luxuries to be comfortable. A bed with a mattress, sheets, a pillow, a shower and other necessaries -- but it did have a lovely view of the adjoining farm and the hills in the distance. Again, much like Vermont, which I considered some of the most beautiful country on earth.
If I had been worried as to how I would be received by a European audience, those fears quickly evaporated as I donned my lab coat and went down to socialize. As soon as I started chatting with folks (all of them had exquisite English skills) I started to draw a crowd. I still do not know how or why that happens, but I'm very flattered to know that it works even in other countries. No voltage adapter needed.
I was thrilled to meet a German fur whose artwork I have adored for years and whom I must confess I've been wanting to fanboy over for a long time. One of the Men in Black who escorted the vehicle was none other than Karsten Auchter, alias Big Blue Fox. He was on staff and somewhat busy, but I was able to spend a few precious moments chatting with him and getting to know him better. Definitely a highlight for me.
We had a lovely dinner of grilled sausage and beef and a tasty mishmash of vegetables that the Germans called "salad" (not a shred of lettuce to be seen, hooray!). I was gifted with two bottles of sake, one of which I shared with the folks who joined me at my table, giving us a proper multinational meal. I spent the rest of the evening socializing at various places including the campfire. It was there that I was first introduced to a fellow with a most astonishing demon costume as he emerged from the darkness and into the firelight. After that I went in and changed my pants and then went to sleep.
The next morning I had a lovely breakfast of...sliced luncheon meat with unidentifiable spots in it, sliced cheese, bread, jelly and room-temperature herbal tea. The Germans are not very big on breakfast. That's why they call it a "Continental breakfast." It's how they dine on the European continent. Afterward there was some more socializing -- I really loved talking with the Eurofurs and tried to meet as many as I could -- and then I was invited to do a panel discussion with Cheetah on "Running a Convention." Specifically, we wanted to discuss the differences between the hulking U.S. conventions and the fledgling European gatherings. Many things are the same, and many things are different. It boiled down to this: in the U.S., in order to be successful the cons have to be run as a business. In Europe they can still manage to run them as big parties and make them work. I hope that never changes for them.
Lunch was a nice big spread and I stuffed myself full. After that I was asked to appear at "Who the Heck is Uncle Kage," where I presented my written works as well as a brief history of my onstage persona. Sofawolf Press had sent along 5 copies of each of my publications; they sold out almost before the dealer room opened. Sofawolf had asked me if I would carry some more into Germany, but after seeing what happened to some Anthrocon dealers trying to cross from Canada into the U.S. I was leery of importing "commercial merchandise" and declined. Now having seen how uninterested German Customs was, I wish I'd stuffed a few dozen into my suitcase.
Immediately thereafter I went down to the stage with the mistaken impression that I was needed for a pawpet rehearsal. I was pleased to find a talk being given by one Dr. Frank Buschmann, a human and animal behavior specialist, who taught us the Twelve Myths of Human Intellect. It was a very enlightening presentation that basically showed that there was nothing inherently superior about the human mentality over that of animals. Anything that one could point to as being something unique to man, Dr. Buschmann pointed out examples of animals with the same capabilities. Somewhat humbling!
I wandered through the afternoon, hanging with various people and chatting and visiting the art show (no separate adult section there. In Europe they are rather uninhibited, although they did not allow anyone under 18 inside). I got to play with the security dog, who was actually a massive, loveably floppy mutt named Pientzelchen (pronounced similar to "pizza-shen", or if you are a dummer Amerikaner like me, "piece o'shit").
Dinner consisted of...sliced luncheon meat with unidentifiable spots in it, sliced cheese, bread, jelly and room-temperature herbal tea. Apparently lunch is the big meal in that country.
After that was Uncle Kage's Story Hour. I slowed down the speech a little bit in deference to those who might have a little trouble following my sometimes frantic English, and told them of my trip to Paris, my subsequent trip to the Netherlands, and a few other things. There were some particularly loud cheers any time I harshed on the French.
Thereafter was "Leopardy," a version of the popular game show here. They had gone so far as to re-create the Jeopardy board on a computer and project it on a big screen. They had even made a buzzer system for the three contestants. All in all, a heck of a lot of work went into it. It had some glitches early on during which I was asked to keep the audience distracted, but with the famous German efficiency that I was really coming to appreciate, they got everything up and running just fine.
I was asked to join various folks for a sip of wine. Normally I try to attenuate my drinking, but I did not want to insult anyone so I sipped. I sipped enough to convince myself to join a game of Truth or Dare. While there I sipped enough that I got to the point where I forgot how to speak English and could only communicate in French. That's when they put me to bed.
I was a bit groggy on Saturday, having been up later than usual and having been rather dehydrated, but I was able to eat the Continental Breakfast before delivering a discussion on "Handling Birds of Prey." I really am not sure why they scheduled that. Sure, I do that, but there was nothing quite resembling a bird of prey there. Luckily, one of the staffers had a Folkmanis owl puppet which I borrowed, and that worked just fine. It sat perfectly motionless, just as a real owl does. Folks learned all about old Red and many of the other birds I've known.
After that was an exquisite lunch, and then the most interesting presentation for me, "How to Be a Good Storyteller." I had no idea what I was supposed to say. I do not know how to be a good storyteller. I just tell stories and people think it is good. The presentation, however, was quite an eye-opener for me. For the first time I was able to examine my own technique, just what goes through my mind when I'm telling a story and how I decide which words to insert, where to place emphasis and inflection, and so on. Of course, I only filled about 20 minutes, and when I ran out of things to say, I did what any professor does when he's run out of things to say. "Any questions?" The audience certainly had their share, and I learned something new about myself with each one I answered. I think I learned more in the session than anyone in the audience did, in fact. One question which is inevitable was, "Just how much of your stories is true and how much is bullshit?" All of the stories are true, of course. Any embellishment is in the finer details, and for the most part that is not necessary. As I've always said, shit happens, and it seems that I tend to be the one it happens to.
More socializing, more laughter and banter, another dinner of meat and cheese and ambient temperature tea, and then the art auction. I understand that it was Eurofurence's first auction, and the first that I had conducted in a foreign currency. The audience was constantly correcting me. "Euros! Not dollars!" OK, so they are Eurodollars, right? "No, that's just what Americans call them." There was a gang of Frenchmen in the audience near the front row and I couldn't help picking on them a little bit ("Le train est suprime'!")
After the auction (planned for 30 minutes, actual time 90 minutes) the variety show started. That was an epic pawpet performance starring Poke the drag-queen ferret (who kept heckling me during the auction and bit me at least once) and his friends Lori the fox and Lionel the lion. It was in three acts, with some filler events in between. One of them was a last-minute bit I was asked to do: Iron Artist. I had been warned that people would not volunteer, so I asked any artists whose work had sold at auction for more than 100 Euros to stand up. Three people did, so I hurried them onto stage and told them they were busted. Each got a big piece of paper and a marker. I was given the honor of choosing the topic that each would have three minutes to draw. I chose,"Giant furries tossing France out of the European Union!"
Here are the results:
#2 tearfully admitted that he was not the artist; he was merely the artist's agent. I don't know; it's not that bad a piece.
Another interlude was drawings for raffle prizes. Dr. Buschmann assisted me in this endeavor. He was dressed in a decidedly Cuban-looking outfit, so we complemented each other well on stage. I was also very impressed by his wit and showmanship. Quite the natural on stage, he could easily be a German Uncle Kage.
When all was over the dance began, but I sadly had to go to bed. My homeward flight was an early one and I had to leave at 7:00 AM the following day. It meant I had to miss the closing ceremonies on Sunday and the group photo shoot, both to my chagrin. Dutchfur Pegla was kind enough to give me a ride into Frankfurt. We were accompanied by a fellow in another vehicle (just in case Pegla's POS died on the way), and much to my dismay I've forgotten his name! Both were kind enough to remain with me at the airport until my flight, so I bought them breakfast (cheese and meat) at the airport.
There was a brief moment of concern at the X-ray machine as I waited for my little bucket of pocket-items to go through. The guard watching the monitor waved the second guard over and both stared closely at the screen. I was sweating heavily as the second guard began to speak to me in German. Was I ever glad I had practiced that key phrase, "Bitte, ich spreche kein Deutsch." He nodded and turned the monitor so that I could see it. Apparently my clip-on sunglasses had settled atop two 20 EuroCent pieces that I'd tossed into the bin in such a fashion that it caught the guards' attention. Something like this appeared on the monitor screen:
Once again across the Rhine, over Belgian farmlands and the city of Brussels, the English Channel and on to London. This time I was delighted to have a most pleasant view of the city on our approach. I saw old Father Thames out the window and followed the water as we flew into the city, where I got my first look at Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Albert Hall, Buckingham Palace, and all of those other picture-postcard places. Four hours at Heathrow and a repeat of the harrowing shuttle rides from one end of Britain to the other, then onto a big Triple-7 and out over the Celtic Sea. With the Discovery Channel and A Beautiful Mind on the little screen in front of me, along with some not-half-bad British Airways foodstuffs to keep me occupied, we were in Philadelphia before I knew it. I even made it home in time to catch the end of that evening's episode of the Funday Pawpet Show. If you click on the flag at the top of this page, you'll hear my incoherent, jetlagged call-in.
I began this report almost immediately simply to put down all the details of this most astonishing trip while they were still fresh in my mind. I met so many wonderful people over there -- BBF, Cheetah, Jumpy, Fairlight (my bodyguard upon arrival and the evil force behind Poke), Cougar, Dr. Buschmann, and so many others. I wish I could name them all here, but my fingers are growing tired and some of them had names that I could not hope to spell properly. I hope they know who they are and are assured that I remember them most fondly. I had a fantastic time, an almost magical experience, and would jump at the chance to return. It may happen, too. I understand that there was a petition circulated among the membership to request that the staff invite Uncle Kage to be guest of honor again next year at Eurofurence 9.
I know. I circulated it.