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My first experience of French Canada was staggering out of an airport somewhere around midnight to discover that my linguistic sources were slightly wrong. I'd been told that "Bonjour hi" was a common greeting which could be used to mean "I know you like to speak French around here, but could you indulge a native English speaker?" The way it is actually used is that when you encounter a stranger from a service industry, like the first taxi driver in line at this particular moment, they greet you enthusiastically with "Bonjour! Hello! Hello! Bonjour!" until you respond in one language or the other.
We were staying at the Hotel La Tour Centre-Ville, which, once we'd had some sleep and a chance to really settle in, I really came to like. Sure, the alleged high-speed Internet access was basically unusable and the public areas were teetering on the brink of seediness, but the room itself was clean and some genius architect and interior designer had worked out a way to take a fairly average-sized hotel room, add a kitchenette and dinner table, and somehow make it seem more spacious than your typical room. Once we had located the local grocery store, provisioned ourselves, and gotten into a daily routine, it became my favorite hotel I have ever stayed at for a Worldcon.
It was also the only con hotel this year, as far as I know, to include a self-service laundromat. Bwahahaha. I really wish the "apartment-style" option was available every year.
And it was only a three-block walk down to the convention center. Every morning I made the stroll, which went past a curious-looking establishment calling itself Maison Hanteé (Haunted House), which, by the posters outside, appeared to offer some sort of supernaturally-themed dinner theater. I took a closer look at the front of it one day, and found a notice from the local public health department posted on the front door. I'm not sure if it was part of the show or not.
So into the convention center, which appeared to be remarkably free of conventions until we figured out to go up the escalators and find that registration was on the second floor. (Signage appeared later.) Then I set to work getting familiar with the peculiarities of this year's layout, which included hauling two boxes of zines several blocks to the party hotel, hauling them back after finding that the fanzine lounge wouldn't open until that evening, and then discovering further that the fanzine lounge was actually right there in the exhibit hall during the day. An interesting idea, just not explained quite well enough in the program.
And there was the oddity of the Palais de Congrès's floor plan: shops on the first floor, some function space on the second, meeting rooms on the fifth, and restaurants which were said to open and close at the owners' whims up top on the seventh. (Rumors went around that they did open a couple times during the con, but I never saw them open myself.) Floors 3 and 4 were exclusively for administrative functions of some sort, and as far as I could ever determine, there was no actual sixth floor.
Back in the exhibit hall, the first programming I attended was Human Battleship, which is apparently a tradition at Japanese conventions, brought to the West for the first time by the Nippon 2007 people. (Who incidentally are bidding again for 2017; start saving now!) The basic idea is: Two teams are assembled. Everyone except the team leader (or admiral) is blindfolded and given a large inflatable sword or hammer. The teams line up on either side of the battlefield. Each turn, the admiral rolls a gigantic die and directs one person on their team to take that number of paces, optionally turn, and then attack. If they strike a member of the other team (or maybe even of their own), that person is removed from the game.
The first news crew was on site by this time, and naturally, surrounded by educational exhibits and fanhistorical resources, what they wanted pictures of was the people whacking each other with giant inflatable hammers.
I went to a panel called "The Webcomics You Should be Reading", and came back with this list: Girl Genius, Schlock Mercenary, The Book of Biff, Jesus & Moe, Finder, A Distant Soil, FreakAngels, Narbonic, Piled Higher & Deeper, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Dork Tower, Something Awful, and xkcd. Aside from the two I'm already reading, I haven't been able to get into any of these, but maybe one of you out there will find this useful.
Opening Ceremonies brought in a minor local dignitary to say a few words-- the local member of the Canadian parliament, who is also, it turns out, a lifelong sf fan. And a former astronaut. And a former director of the Canadian Space Agency. (I bet I'm not the first person to say this, but I didn't even know there was a Canadian Space Agency.)
But they topped that with the next thing after Opening Ceremonies, possibly the most-anticipated panel of the convention: past Hugo winner Charles Stross sitting down with last year's Nobel winner for economics, Paul Krugman. There's a text transcript online, but it doesn't capture the full feeling of being there. Like when Krugman started talking about the future challenges of feeding humanity, and Stross mentioned that PETA is offering a prize for someone who develops a way to grow meat without actual living animals. Then he started talking about the possibilities of bringing cloned human tissue into the picture, and said he's working on a story about some ladies who meet for lunch every while to, erm, dine on each other, in a sense, and a policeman who tries to figure out if they should be charged with anything. Mere text cannot convey the extended pause and the series of expressions that crossed Krugman's face as he tried to come up with a response to this. That round definitely goes to the Hugos.
It was late after that, at least for a morning person, but I felt compelled to do a quick circuit of the parties, which turned out to be a mistake. I don't drink (alcohol tastes hideous to me), so I am the last person in the world who should be reporting that I drank something green at some party and lived to regret it, but one of the Japanese hosts offered me some green tea and I was suddenly too polite to refuse. Fun science fact: when prepared in a proper traditional manner, green tea contains, unit for unit, four times the caffeine of espresso.
So it was in an unusually alert frame of mind that I was walking back to my hotel past the semi-famous sculptural fountain La Joute, which sits right across from the convention center, just as it was starting its nighttime show. Every half hour, on summer evenings, mist suddenly starts rising up from vents throughout the entire park surrounding it. Then the fountain stops. Then flames start appearing in the water. Then they die down again, the mist vanishes, and the fountain resumes.
The next few days have blurred together into one big causality-defying melange by now. Every morning I would go to Strolling With the Stars, which gave us a look at both old and new Montréal with a different route each day. One day, one of the stars was Paul Cornell. Long-time readers will recall that circumstances have conspired to make us meet at the two previous Worldcons, but this time, I figured all I had to do was hang back and let the people who like the new Doctor Who talk to him. I swear, I swear, I swear I did not know, because I hadn't made it to the walk at Denvention where he was one of the stars, that when he participates, he makes a point of talking to every single person there. So I somehow wound up walking alongside him and listening sympathetically as he described how his two Hugo nominee pins, both for Doctor Who, are his most prized possessions, and telling him that Best Graphic Story (for which he was nearly nominated this year) had become a permanent category.
Oh, yes, I made it to the Main Business Meeting. Best Graphic Story was confirmed by a simple show of hands after minimal debate. So were wording changes to make online works eligible in all categories where they weren't already. The big game was the debate over Best Semiprozine, where I will admit that I voted with the minority, for it to be eliminated, on the principle that no one was ever going to get it fixed until it was thrown out and reintroduced. Although it was retained, there was finally a committee formed to bring recommendations for changes to Melbourne next year.
Dinner was always something out of the fridge back at the hotel. Lunch was more varied. One day it was the faneds' luncheon, which attracted 50-some people to a restaurant called Fourquet-Fourchette ("Fork-Antique Spatula", according to the more French-speaking diners). This place specialized in local cuisine-- all forms, including Amerindian. I had a sampler platter of native foods which included pemmican, smoked duck, smoked salmon, caribou jerky, cornbread, something kind of suet-y, and an innocent-looking "Huron-style" salad which turned out to contain highly potent native spices.
Another lunch, I had to try the local Tim Horton's, which is kind of the Starbucks or McDonald's of Canada. People may complain about how much fat and sugar there is in a Happy Meal, but at least the basic combo at McDonald's doesn't include an actual dessert, whereas the Tim Horton's equivalent is a sandwich, coffee, and a donut. They are interesting and tasty donuts, though.
In between, there were panels. Continuing the culinary theme, there was one on food in sf, where the overall conclusion was that sf hardly touches on the cultural significance of food. I asked for suggestions of sf books that do food well, and got: Monument by Lloyd Biggle Jr., Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad, Pashazade and Efendi by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (who, full disclosure, was the person making this recommendation), and the "Quintaglio Ascension" trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer.
For dessert, there was my new favorite Worldcon event, "Trivia for Chocolate". It works like this: Mark Olson sits at the front of the room with a pile of chocolate and asks trivia questions. The first person to give an audible correct answer gets a piece of chocolate thrown to them. If you have the right answer, but aren't heard, it's your own fault and you should move closer. If a bunch of people all call out the answer at the same time, a handful of chocolate is thrown around randomly. If someone feels like they're accumulating too much chocolate, they can have their score so far recorded and put the chocolate back, allowing the fun to keep going longer.
This is harder than it sounds. The guy who won didn't necessarily have more overall sf knowledge, but he was half a second faster than everyone else most of the time. Must practice for next time.
There was "Writing the Other and Other Assumptions", where the main takeaway was that this is still a very difficult and high-tension area to even discuss, although this panel got through it without anyone getting close to shouting at anyone.
There was a book group for Always Coming Home, where I was one of two people attending who had actually read it, and the only one who remembered a lot about it. The other few people who showed up were Ursula K. Le Guin fans who just wanted to hear about it. I wound up chatting afterward with one of them who turned out to be from Caracas, where, he reports, fandom is still in the very early stages of organization-- it's difficult at the moment to get people to come to weekly meetings, much less even contemplate conventions. Further difficulty is caused by the high import duties placed on foreign books, though he also said it's normal, when Venezuelan customs notes your suitcase full of books, to simply assure them that you always take care to bring a small private library with you from home whenever you travel out of the country.
I also got a couple recommendations of Spanish-language authors to check out when I get around to relearning the language. Can you have a conversation like this at Dragon*Con, I ask you?
The masquerade was terrific, both in terms of contestants and being on time. Special kudos to the person who came as a Transylvania Polygnostic University professor, who took care to bring a scientific presentation that was recorded in both French and English. The audience favorite of the night, though, had to be the video-game character in the metal bra, high heels, and ridiculous cloak (apparently a recreation of an actual character) with a tirade about what she was going to do if she ever met one of her designers in person. Best title of the night: "Reuse, Recycle... Revenge!!"
And then there were the parties every evening, which could be accessed by a simple walk down the street, or through the underground labyrinth of Montréal Sou-Terrain, which I finally found the way into Saturday night. The escalator that led into it from Anticipation's end of the convention center was unmarked and nearly walled off. At the bottom, one walked through a brick- lined passage with occasional bursts of art, until it ends at what might be a mini- basement for the local historical museum. Pass through another set of glass doors into more art, this time terminating at what might be the top of a subway station. Back up an escalator, where you emerge into what looks like a back alley at Disneyland. The scenery is apparently popular, judging by the wedding party that was going on at the other end of it. If you assured the security guard there that you really needed to get through, you were directed to skirt the party and descend back underground into a mall. Back up again, but still indoors, you suddenly find yourself crossing the lobby of a bank, then going into a door marked for the hotel, which leads you into a wiggly hallway that suddenly dumps you into the middle of the hotel restaurant.
It was probably twice as much walking overall as simply following the street, especially with the circling around and a substantial detour in the mall, where the little group I was travelling with completely lost the scent, but ten times as much fun.
Monday, Chris and I visited the subway itself en route to the locally famous gaming store Le Valet d'Couer. Here was where I verified that you can in fact find jeu de tarot decks in North America. I also discovered that, back when it was a TSR game, Dragon Dice had been released in French, at least in sample-pack form. We noticed an interesting linguistic divide: the boardgames were mostly in French, with some English, and, oddly, one in German (even more oddly, it was a game about mafiosi), but the wargames in the back were all in English, with one exception covering the Napoleonic Wars.
This was also where I began to realize how normal French was starting to sound to me, when one of the store employees asked me if I had any questions. It was only after I said, "No, I'm just looking around," that another part of my brain produced a late bulletin that he'd actually asked me in French.
Another bit of foreign oddness was the subway itself, which looks perfectly normal until you look down and notice there are no proper tracks, just a single guide rail. The weight of the train rests on tires. It's like what subways everywhere would look like if they'd been invented by someone from Pavane.
I almost didn't want to leave Montréal the next day, and it seemed like Montréal didn't want me to leave, either. I thought, since we were leaving at midday, it would be fun to take the train from the local equivalent of Grand Central Station a few blocks away out to the airport. The one crucial difference between Gare Central and Grand Central, though, is that the one in Montréal is hidden in a skyscraper with no exterior features to suggest that it contains a train station. The main entrance only has a sign for a bank. We found it somehow after a lot of fruitless circling and dragging suitcases up and down stairs, only to discover that the entire ticket counter staff was taking their smoking break, and got tickets only about 20 minutes before departure time.
Train ride was nice, and the included shuttle to the terminal was brisk. But our plane was late arriving from Paris, showing up just in time for all service to be suspended for an hour or so due to thunderstorms. So what should have been a leisurely trip though customs in Vancouver turned into an aerobic power walk, and our checked baggage ultimately didn't make it into the US until the next day.
At least we made it onto our scheduled flight; I know one person who spent an unplanned night to Toronto, and another whose plane took off, circled Montréal for two hours, and then landed there again.
All in all, though, a great time, and I really wish I could make it to Melbourne next year, but it is probably not to be.
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