Friday, December 10, 1999 (Bratislava, Slovakia)
At last, an easy day in this trip. The one wrap-up meeting was scheduled late enough in the day that there was time for a drive out to the city of Piet'any and back. The main attractions of Piet'any are its spa and thermal springs, and much of the economy there seems to depend on them. I tried some of the supposedly curative mineral water, but it was so sulfurous that it tasted like eggs had been boiled in it. I guess I'm thankful there wasn't enough time to indulge in the supposedly equally curative mud baths -- the stuff is mildly radioactive and I'm not ready to spend the rest of my life acting as my own night light!
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Those of you who read my closing comments with its travel diary excerpts (like the one above) in Mimosa 24 know that my real-world job, as an international trade promotion specialist, usually takes me to Eastern Europe once or twice each year. Even though my hosts over there do take every opportunity to allow me to experience their countries, these trips are intense -- there's often not time to do much after a long day of business meetings except write a few postcards to friends and collapse into bed.
It eventually dawned on me, with some insistent nudging from my friend Guy Lillian, that I was really missing out on something by not trying harder to find and meet some of the science fiction fans who live in the places that I visit. Even though I do know some fans in parts of Poland, Guy was mostly right; in all my many trips to Bratislava, for instance, I'd done nothing whatsoever to try to locate the local fan club there, much less try to attend one of their meetings.
So when the time came to prepare for my trip to Slovakia and Poland this past December, I decided that this time it would be different. I'd met and enjoyed the company of fans from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Japan during Aussiecon; this trip to Eastern Europe would finally be the time I'd get to meet some of those fandoms, too.
To my surprise, it turned out easier to do than I thought it would. The day before I left home, I was able to get the email address of Martina Pilcerová, a member of the Bratislava fan club. I didn't receive a response from my query to her about meeting dates and places before I arrived in Bratislava, but luckily there was an Internet café not far from where I was staying, and by the time I was able to access my email one evening, the response was there waiting -- it turned out the meeting was going on that same evening in a bar/restaurant just a five minute walk!
It was a very pleasant meeting. I'd only intended to stay about a half-hour, but the conversation was excellent (as were several large glasses of Slovak beer) and we ended up closing the place around midnight. I was surprised that many of them had fairly specific knowledge of North American fandom, though not of many individual fans themselves. And I was even more surprised to find out that in spite of the disadvantageous exchange rate between the Slovak koruna and the U.S. dollar, some of them had previously been to the United States. Martina had even attended two previous North American world cons, and was planning ahead for Chicago! By the time the evening had expired, so had most of my preconceptions.
One other thing I should mention about Bratislava fandom is that they are very committed fan publishers! They have a very slick-looking Slovak-language magazine, Fantazia, edited by Ivan Aleksa, that seems a combination of Locus, Starlog, and F&SF... and maybe even a little bit of Mimosa as well. There were manuscripts of some of the articles they were considering for their next issue spread out on the restaurant table when I arrived for their next meeting two nights later. It was easy to see they were having a good time being trailbreakers; Fantazia is presently the world's only Slovak-language science fiction periodical.
Poland is a much larger country than Slovakia in terms of population, so you'd expect there'd be more fans and fan organizations there, too. And there are. There are so many, in fact, that even if I'd had several weeks there, I might not get to meet with all of them. My December trip took me to Poland for only four days, so I really had time for only two meetings, one in Warsaw and one in the southern Polish city of Katowice.
I'd previously met some of the Katowice fans. One of them, now the Director of a large design engineering institute, had been part of a delegation of Polish Energy experts I hosted in 1990. And we didn't discover that each of us was a science fiction fan until a chance remark in a breakfast restaurant in Owensboro, Kentucky, after more than a week had passed! (But that's another story.)
The Katowice club also publishes fanzines (including an English-language one!), and is a bit eclectic; their interests seem to include everything from Tolkien fandom to "Let's party!" And it's also one of the more well-known and visible fan groups in Poland; they have their own clubhouse (something that only a few SF clubs in the United States can boast) and one of their members (Piotr Cholewa) is the leading translator of Polish science fiction.
Warsaw is by far the largest city in Poland, and it also has the largest fan community in the country. I was told by Magda Zórawska, one of my fan friends in Warsaw, that there are several different fan clubs in the city. Unfortunately, I didn't have much of a chance to talk to very many of them the one night I thought I'd be free; that's one of the perils of a business trip. But they were a cheerful group, and insisted I stay at least to drink a beer with them; it was an offer I couldn't refuse.
When the time comes to go Eastern Europe again, I don't think I'll need any more reminders to locate other fans. It's an enriching experience that I can recommend for anyone. I know it was for me.
Title illustration by Sheryl Birkhead
All photos by Rich Lynch