Around 1993 I went to my first Science Fiction convention at the crumbling Castlegate Hotel in Atlanta. My sister and I would stroll the dealers room arm in arm looking for VHS copies of Red Dwarf, which was impossible to find in the US. We graduated to Dragon Con and enjoyed many years of discovering new and fun things, until that became an insurmountable, unwieldy labyrinth. I don't have my sister anymore, so navigating a con alone is like having one eye shut and flailing. I did have my writing friends, Gary and Mike and Jenn. (You may not know Jenn yet, but you will soon. Her epic fantasy, The Ruin of Kings, is set to hit big soon.)
Of course, I couldn't tag along with them everywhere, they had their own stuff to do, so I struck out on my own.
It was my first time visiting Helsinki, and my first big trip traveling alone. I know from previous trips the first order of business is to figure out the transit system. The station names are Finnish street names. Umlaut-laden multi-syllable consonant-heavy words. Of course if you don't read Finnish they also show the names in Swedish, which looks nothing like Finnish, or English.
When you ride the ride the trams or the trains you are to press when your stop is next. If nobody presses their button the tram driver doesn't stop. This may be an imperfect system. Or maybe the driver was annoyed that, due to my anxiety over missing my stop, I kept mashing my stop button repeatedly. LIke I am groot repeatedly. My bad, HSL.
I did better when walking. Once I got into the groove of getting around, I popped in my earbuds and let this song be my soundrack, security, and courage.
Down Bulevardi I went and through the Esplanadi, passing statues and fountains. Some serious, men with big mallets and bears, but also seals spitting at mermaids. In Finland, wearing a bear is a fashion statement, especially if you're a Finnish muse. I wonder what you would wear if you're a vegetarian muse?
I stopped at a cafe that reminded me of Bioshock Infinite...
...and had a blue cheese bagel, a special cake to celebrate Finland's 100th year, and a cappucino with a foam heart. At the water's edge I bought a paper bag filled with a liter of strawberries while I waited to meet up with some other writers to catch the ferry to Suomenlinna, the sea fortress.
Back at the Messukeskos Convention center, I roamed around and saw these kickass girls. I loved how they were walking along all normal but as soon as I asked to take their picture they immediately formed up into their character's ideal stance:
I ran into the inimitable Alasdair Stuart from http://escapepod.org/ which was a huge deal for me. He hosted the episode of Escape Pod my short story, Joolie and Irdl, was featured on, but even before that I loved listening to his enthusiastic introductions on the podcast. Even though I was very nervous about approaching someone I didn't know and bothering them, you can see from the picture that he is as nice in person as he sounds on the podcast.
Gary and I spent some time in lines and had a great conversation about lines (or if you're all fancy-like you can call them queues) and Finnnish culture and politics and people and buckets, and how to signal to your seatmate you want to exit the train without actually speaking to them (begin putting on your gloves, examine your transfer ticket, etc). In general, Finnish people don't smile at strangers, or at least, they are not as gregarious as Americans, but no stereotype is true all the time. This girl is the antithesis to socially awkward and was one of my favorite people I met in Helsinki.
I went to some panels, but it was tricky to manage. So many people showed up you had to get in line early. Eventually the organizers began moving things to larger rooms. I did manage to go to a few panels. Benjamin C. Kinney at the Superintelligence Panel. Tom Crosshill moderated almost all of the panels I went to. I particularly enjoyed this little incident during the Superintelligence panel. After the panelists have discussed the topics the floor is opened to questions and the moderator usually repeats the question using the mic so that everyone can hear what is being asked. There was this one particular commenter who had a surprisingly loud and resonant voice - so much so that the entire audience did a collective startle take. Not missing a beat and dry as can be, Crosshill said, "I will now repeat the question in case someone did not hear it." Who knows what the panel's response was, since the audience was doubled over in laughter.
Standing in line and sitting in panels is the easy part. One problem I had (have), is that if I recognize someone but don't 'know' them, I get kind of tunnel vision directed a few centimeters to their left or right, like they're a sun I can't look directly at, and if I'm close enough to interact with them I start to imagine I might say something stupid. I usually overcome this by a) becoming very interested in my phone b) retreating, or c) saying something even more stupid. Case in point: There was a person that I had been IM'ing with prior to the convention and had wanted to meet in person. I did see them peripherally here and there. They had told me the various panels and meetings they would be attending, but the opportunity to engage in conversation never arose. Finally, on the last morning, I was eating in a cafe and I saw them, at a table amongst a group of other people I recognized. Normally I wouldn't disturb someone while they are eating, but I said, self, be bold, this is the last day, you won't have another chance. So I summoned my courage and went over and introduced myself. This person, gently, mentioned that they were in a meeting. A meeting I knew about because they had told me about it prior to the convention. Some part of my brain was calculating time zones and matching up dates to events, but what came out of my mouth was somehow questioning why this person was at this meeting. They graciously and politely explained what what they were doing why they were there, while all the other members of the meeting waited.
So yeah. That happened.
I slunk away like Charlie Brown. I wanted to go home and hide in a book. But I was at a convention, in Helsinki, and it wouldn't do to go to the airport an entire day early. I circled the dealers room, head down, stared at my phone, and decided to go get in a line for a panel. It was way early, but at least I know I can't screw up standing in a line.
There were already three people leaning against the wall by the door to the Tomorrows Cool SF Physics panel when I arrived. This was the last day and people had learned to show up early to something they really wanted to see. A man came up at the same time as I, and we both stared at the poster, phones in hand, pondering if the update on the wall was the same as the update in the app. Deciding it must be, I settled at one end of the waiting people and the man smiled and went to the other. Soon a staff person came up and handed the man the end-of-the-line sign.
Evidently I can screw up standing in a line.
I moved into the spot after the man, who looked every bit Plato's ideal of a Finnish person, except for his everpresent American-style smile, and held out my hand for the sign. It wasn't long before someone else joined the line and I relegated the sign to him. We three, the Finn, me and an Englishman, struck up a conversation, and the cloud of mortification of the morning's foibles dissipated at least for the time being.
By the end of the day I was mostly okay, and Gary and I joined Mike and Jenn at the lobby of the Holiday Inn. George RR Martin happened along and that is where the (semi infamous?) photo was taken. He didn't really tell me how ASOIAF ended. What he said was that the Mars company and Finland had reached a deal where the peanuts in Snickers bars were being replaced by salted licorice.
So, all in all, it is possible for the socially awkard to survive a worldcon. Now you know that if you ever happen to recognize me at an event and I fail to engage you like a proper human, it isn't that I'm anti-social, or rude, or even clueless. It's only a mild terror of engaging other people.