And you may find yourself in Espoo, Finland.

And you may find yourself naked, surrounded by dozens of similarly naked Finnish con-goers, in a sauna,with beer and vodka flowing freely, having the time of your life.

And you may ask yourself, “how did I get here?”

In five easy pieces.

PIECE THE FIRST: FRIDAYWherein Air Can’t-ada becomes a distant memory

Ropecon (pronounced — and I can’t stress this enough — ROW-peh-con) is an absolute joy. After the Air Canada Experience From Hell, the remainder of the trip to Helsinki, while occasionally rushed, goes off in First Class and Business Class opulence. I find myself dreading the return journey, having to face economy class and the boxed bread and water that KLM apparently serves the Hoi Polloi (I’m not joking about the bread and water – I looked back before the curtains were drawn. I think I also glimpsed shackles, but I can’t be as certain.)

It’s also good to see friendly faces. Not that those at Air Canada weren’t friendly enough when telling us that our entire trip would be disrupted and that we were completely and utterly at their mercy because they couldn’t make one of any three — THREE — different flights get off the ground within several hours of the scheduled departure time.

But my parents came to greet us at Heathrow, where, apologetically, Air Canada let us use their First Class arrivals lounge, complete with showers and changing room. And our con liaisons were waiting for us at Helsinki. It was just nice to be around anybody whose first words weren’t “I’m sorry, but there’ll be a half-day delay before take-off…”

Anu and Antti drive us to Espoo, and the hotel where sleep washes over me like a thing that should have washed over me much, much earlier in the trip…

PIECE THE SECOND: SATURDAYTalk Talk Talk

My first real introduction to Finland is the coffee, which the hotel serves in great steaming rivers. It’s strong, dark and lethal, and I love it. (Later, I meet some local baristas who are horrified by my affinity for the native brew — they see it as coarse and unsophisticated — but coffee is much like beer to me: as long as it can wake the dead, I’m in favor of it).

Breakfast is buffet-style, the sort of thing northern Europeans do very well. The cheeses are unimpressive and fairly interchangeable plasticy things, but lovely fruits, juices and meats, as well as a tremendous selection of hearty breads, soon have us all but forgetting the nightmare days spent with The Airline We Shall Never Again Mention By Name.

Ropecon (pronounced — did I mention this? — ROW-peh-con)is located in Espoo’s bizarre, non-euclidian Dipola building, a venue so architecturally crazed that you’d swear the planners (a husband and wife team) had either gaming conventions or Great Cthulhu in mind when they designed it. Nearly 3,500 attendees have shown up, which blows me away. Unlike most British and American cons, you wouldn’t be able to tell it from looking in the hallways or the dealer room. It’s only when you got upstairs to the packed gaming halls, where nearly every square foot of space was in use, that the magnitude of the show hits you. The Finns have come to PLAY.

There are Lego Pirates games and LARPS taking place on the sunny, grassy lawns rolling outside the hall. There, too, the smell of street foods also wafts. A handful of stalls sell great ladled portions of meat and potatoes, or chicken and rice, cooked en masse in giant wok-like vats the size of a small car. It’s almost a circus-like atmosphere, and one from which more cons could gain from.

I’m scheduled for three seminars, two of which are on my own, and the first of which is at 2 pm today. It’s on Dork Tower, a topic I’m usually comfortable chatting about. So as not to depress myself too much, I avoided peeking in on the other talks, since I really didn’t feel like knowing my audience would be, say, half that of “Chainmail – Friend or Foe?” (actual seminar titles have been changed to protect the innocent).

The dealer’s hall was smaller than most those you’d find in the UK or USA at similar-sized cons. The variety of products, however, was pretty impressive. The fantastic folks at Fantasiapelit have the roleplaying and other games covered well (I’m told emergency stocks of Munchkin and Chez Geek had to be brought in as they were selling so briskly). There are also sellers with precise replicas of modern firearms, which I’ve never seen at any con before.

Like most European shows, the medieval garb and LARP weaponry on sale put that which is usually available in the the States to shame, in terms of selection, quality and price. I can’t believe someone wouldn’t make a killing importing this great stuff Stateside. I briefly consider picking some pieces up. I mean, who DOESN’T want an incredibly realistic giant rubber Viking axe that will lead to many cavity searches at airport security?

At 2 p.m. I wander trepidatiously to the main amphitheater, and see a couple folks going in. This makes me happy: happy that maybe a dozen or so people will be in attendance. My jaw drops on entering the lecture theater, though…and realizing that the room holds between two- to three-hundred people…and that the majority of seats are actually taken.

The idea of flight crosses my mind, but instead I choose to stay and actually give my talk. I do this standing. When I say “standing,” I really mean “wandering nervously around the floor, trying to come up with something halfway interesting to say.” Since the theater is so large, yelling things at the audience also appears mask the lack of content. Surprisingly, this seems to go over well.

A giant drawing pad and lots of nice, thick markers have been left, and between the talk itself and a bit of sketching, I’m amazed to hear laughter and applause coming from the unfeasibly large crowd. Naturally, I check to see if they’ve been drinking (something the Finns do impressively well). If they are, though, they’re hiding it.

It was probably the most amazing time I’ve ever had, giving a talk. I became a cartoonist to essentially hide from people, safe behind a drawing table. But this was a real rush – something I’ve never experienced before. For the first time in my life, I think I know what a standup comedian or an improv actor must feel like. It certainly won’t be the last time I try something new in Finland.

The signing line afterwards was substantial, so by the time Anu took us to Zetor, a restaurant in Helsinki that served authentic Finnish food, I was exhausted but incredibly happy with how things had gone. I’d been told that the Finns could be pretty dour, but everyone was just great, and made Judith and me feel VERY welcome.

Zetor’s is a kind of Finnish TGI Friday’s, but with tractors instead of chotchkies on the wall. The food was great, though, and an amazing salmon soup with a fabulous rye beer (rye’s big, here) were the cappers to a super first day.

Back at the con bar, I’m briefly quizzed by the moderator of a “Politics In Roleplaying” panel I’m supposed to be on, ostensibly to gauge my political correctness. Apparently, because the Dork Tower characters never discuss the art of roleplaying games, and instead are hack-and-slashers, I’m believed to be a roaring conservative. A few “Powers to the Peoples” later, though, and all is cleared up.

Or maybe that was the rye beer talking.

PIECE THE THIRD: SUNDAYBeing in whole a treatise on the benefits of ice cream for breakfast

The hotel breakfast crowd this morning is overflowing into the lobby — a couple of busloads of Japanese tourists have taken over the dining area, and are spilling into other areas of the establishment. I am relieved that the restrooms are free of any brunching Asians. An amusing exchange ensues between the Finnish head chef and a Japanese tourist who made the incorrect assumption that the ice cream stand in the lobby was ALSO part of the breakfast buffet. Because, like, Rocky Road is apparently a Japanese breakfast staple.

What made the incident take on a surreal quality was that the entire argument took place in English.

Judith and I take a quick morning stroll around Espoo, which we read somewhere the second largest city in Finland. It’s a great city for walking. For actually seeing anything WHILE you’re walking, on the other hand, is something it seems to leave to be desired. We wonder around the wooded lots containing the headquarters for technical and scientific companies that seem to loop around on each other infinitely. I am brought in mind of “The Prisoner,” and find myself referring to Judith and “Number Six.” Espoo is a nice place to visit a Multinational telecommunications company, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

It is, though, a great place to hold a con, since there’s nothing to distract from the gaming, unless miles of pleasant but industrial headquarters are your thing.

Judith, Anu and I grab some of the Chicken Paella from one of the Vendors With The Giant Vats, and have lunch on a giant rock outside the show. Ropecon (did I note it’s pronounced ROW-peh-con) is a three-day con, but thanks to a Certain Airline That Shall Remain Nameless, Judith and I missed day one, and had to spend MANY hundreds of dollars to make it in time for days 2 and 3. But honestly, it’s such a special, fun, cool kind of con that everything we went through to get here seems worth it. For the first time in weeks, I feel at utterly at peace.

However, it’s yet another con where I don’t get to play a single game. I’m getting used to this, frankly. Even if I actually WAS able to squeeze in, say, a quick round of Munchkin, I’d probably only lose. I have NEVER won a game of Munchkin in my life: players seem to think that just because I illustrated the damn cards, I have some insight into the strategy and tactics of it, as well. So I get ganged up on early in the game. A lot.

(As a quick aside, perhaps the saddest moment of my sad gaming life came when I lost a game of Munchkin at Warpcon, in Cork, even though the others at the table LET ME CREATE NEW CARDS ON THE SPOT TO HELP ME — as long as they were allowed to keep the originals, of course).

Two in the afternoon rolls around, and the political panel is interesting enough, but I kinda feel like the sixth or seventh wheel on it. I don’t feel comfortable discussing politics in from of a few hundred people, and I realize now why I became an editorial cartoonist and not, say, a talking head on CNN. I try and crack a few jokes, but quickly realize that being quiet and mousey is probably the tactic least likely to annoy the Panelists Who Actually Know What They’re Talking About. I see Judith sneaking out the back, and only wish I could escape so easily.

My second seminar of the day comes on the heels of this one, and it’s the last of the convention. I assume the auditorium will be mostly empty, but quickly become appalled when the room actually starts to fill up even more than before. It’s nearly standing-room only, and I freak. I mean, at this point I still have no idea of what I’m going to talk about — to my mind, I’d already used up all my good material Friday, believing nobody would be here today.

This is what is known as a tragic tactical miscalculation.

“When people hear that a speaker’s good, everybody wants to come to their next talk,” one of the liasons explains.

D’OH!

Somehow, someway, the talk seems to go even better than the previous day. The audience is great, patient, and seems to enjoy itself. I’m up and walking around again (all the easier to flee if something I say goes disastrously wrong), and probably resemble some kind of manic, absentminded professor on speed. Halfway through, I lose my train of thought completely, but manage to pull SOMETHING out. Again, it’s a tremendous time. I don’t want to have to do things like this on a daily basis, but it’s VERY new and different to me, and I’m glad I could experience it.

The signing line is even longer than before, but people seem forgiving and understanding. Yay for people!

Traditionally, the con organizers dine at Saslik, a terrific Russian restaurant, the last day of every show. In an amazing show of generosity (this place is NOT cheap), they also spring for the Guests of Honor, and dragged us back into Helsinki with them. Velvet drapes and Russian nick-nacks abound, and the food and drinks are tremendous. I’m relieved that Judith forgoes the bear meat on the menu, but instead settles for Rudolph…I’m sorry, I mean “Reindeer.” Well, OK, so it was a smoked duck breast filled with reindeer fillet, potato terrine and rosemary sauce, but it’s still “Rudolph” to me.

Apparently, Rudolph tasted amazing. To me, though, the standout of the night was a Siberian vodka that may be one of the best I’ve ever tasted – Altai.

Close to midnight, we finally left the restaurant. There was still the hint of sunset on the horizon, and this world seemed unbelievable amazing. Or maybe that was the Altai talking.

PIECE THE FOURTH: MONDAYMostly involving cannons, guns and towels

“You MUST stay for the party Monday,” Anu had pleaded, in an earlier e-mail trying to get a handle on Judith and my schedule. So who were we to refuse?

During the course of Ropecon (interesting fact: did you know that it’s pronounced ROW-peh-con?), several people wanted to make absolutely sure that we would be there as well, and vague hints of what the party would entail were starting to filter through my rye beer and Altai-infused mind.

There would be a barbeque involved. And lots of drink.

And, oh, yes (did we not mention this earlier?), a Finnish sauna.

“Of course I read Jonathan Tweet’s report from last year,” I told folks, who quizzed me to see if I really knew what the Finnish sauna-ing was about.

Now, when I said “read,” I actually meant “skimmed, trying to pick out the highlights, and not actually making my way right to the end of it, where he discussed getting naked with all the con-goers and indulging in a spot of Naked Coed Seaman Wresting.” But really, there’s no need to get nit-picky here.

First, though, Judith and I had an entire day to wander around Helsinki, a lovely, compact capital city with some of the most charming vistas this side of France. By this time, we’d figured out the bus and tram system, and were quite comfortable wielding our day passes like Cossacks might wield a sabre. Plus, they were good for the ferry to the Suemenlinna Island Fortress, one of those places that simply has to be seen to be believed.

The Swedes who built the fortress would probably be appalled to know that it’s now the top picnic spot and family afternoon getaway in Finland: that’s runaway military spending for you, though. Nobody ever thinks about the long-term implications.

Much of the fortress has become overgrown, and the military barracks burrowed into the earth are said to have been the inspiration for Tolkein’s Hobbiton. It certainly doesn’t seem farfetched once you’re there.

Cannon from the last few hundred years are scattered around the windswept islands like so much bric-a-brac. I’m certain Judith is going to slug me if I point out the difference between the late 18th century models and mid-19th century numbers one more time.

Back in Helsinki proper, I start buying up armloads of Moomin-stuff. Judith’s never heard of the Moomin children’s books before, but I’m in hog heaven. I grab some stuffed Moomintrolls, some Moomin character cookie cutters and a few Moomin odds and ends with the wild-eyed frenzy of crazed parents fighting for Cabbage Patch Kids 15 years ago.

“Wow. The nephews sure will love those,” Judith notes.

“Uh…nephews. Sure. Right. Nephews. Uh-huh,” I say, trying to figure out how many Moomin coffee cups formy own personal use will comfortably fit into the backpack for the return journey across the Atlantic.

Back in Espoo, the full scope of the convention-ending party is starting to take shape. It’s taken a while, but I finally believe I’ve figured out what an actual Finnish sauna entails.

“Errrr…we didn’t pack swimming trunks,” I comment to Judith.

“Uh…swimming trunks. Sure. Right. Swimming trunks. Uh-huh,” she replies, taking only a towel and a pair of flip-flops with her.

Certain American con guests in years past have gotten pretty uptight at the thought of giant coed sauna parties. Some even refused to participate entirely (I will name no names, but apparently this is a source of some amusement to our Finnish hosts). Now, if inhibition was poker, growing up in England and moving to the American midwest (as I have) essentially means I’ve been dealt the Royal Flush on the flop, so the thought of gettingnekkid with (admitedly friendly) strangers DOES give me pause for thought.

“Don’t worry,” said Anu. “Many people don’t get undressed. I probably won’t.”

“Just don’t be surprised if a number of naked women grab you and drag you towards the sauna,” said one of the many very attractive women at the party who, presumably, would at some point be among those grabbing me and dragging me towards a sauna.

It was also around this point that I discovered that Judith hadn’t actually packed ME a towel. In a very Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy-like moment, someone offers to lend me theirs. Finns always know where their towels are, and are apparently ready to aid a towel-less traveler at the drop of hat (along with the rest of your clothes).

In all honesty, though, when surrounded by fabulously friendly Finns who have been filling you with fresh grilled Norwegian salmon and no small amount of licorice-flavored vodka, stripping to one’s birthday suit and entering a blistering-hot sauna with a few dozen newfound pals of varying sexes certainly doesn’t seem as odd as it might at other times. At the very least it just meant that I could finally stop drawing Munchkin cards for people (“sorry — the pen seems to be slipping in the steam”) and that HAD to count for something.

To me, this is is the tipping point in the argument.

“I’ll take you up on that towel offer,” I quickly say.

At any rate, I’ve got to admit that the whole sauna experience was relaxing, invigorating and refreshing, once you were comfortable with the fact that every single pore in your body seemed ready to explode inside this steam-engorged Zanadu. The dip in the sea afterwards (followed by a trip to a second sauna, wood-fired this time) was equally pleasant, though I didn’t expect to be followed by an entourage of about 20 when I announced I was heading to the water.

It’s all about context, I guess. The entire sauna deal just made sense on this brilliant summer night, in a place as close to the arctic circle as I’ve ever come, where the sun sets only in theory and the vodka tastes of salty licorice.

Refusing to sauna also, I reasoned, might be seen as an insult to my hosts. Refusing to NakedCoed Seaman Wrestle (NCSM), on the other hand, could certainly hold no such social stigma (save for one or two folks who appeared to be entirely too into it). Anyway, it’s just the sort of things English Public Schools DO teach you to refuse to do, certain D.H. Lawrence movie adaptations to the contrary.

So I quickly dressed before the NCSM competition got underway. I’m funny like that.

“You must do it,” one woman pleaded. “It’s a tradition!”

“Somebody said it just started up at last year’s con!” I exclaimed, for some strange reason believing that facts would be of some use in an argument such as this.

“So it’s a new tradition,” she countered.”And nobody takes any photos during it!”

“Love , LOVE to, you know,” I explained, while flashbulbs went off madly as the the game began. “But my arm’s really tired from all those Munchkin signings, you know, it just wouldn’t be a fair competition.”

“You can borrow my towel.”

“I’m fine, really,” I said. “PUT THAT BACK ON!”

What else of note? Only that Janne Lonnqvist and a few other guys from Fantasiapelit take me into the parking lot to show me an authentic Suomi machine pistol from the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland. Though it’s been disabled, it’s VERY cool to hold, and thoughts of building up 25 mm skirmish armies for this conflict when I get past home flutter through my mind.

Around 2 a.m, Judith and I wandered back to the hotel, and Anu headed to her car. The beer had run out, and dawn — at this latitude, anyway — was just around the corner.

“I’m proud of you,” said Anu. “I didn’t think you’d sauna.”

“Nor did I,” added Judith. “If I had, I’d have brought you a towel.”

“No problem,” I said, quietly pleased that I’d surprised both Judith and Anu. “Just…uh…let ME pack, next time. OK?”

PIECE THE FIFTH: TUESDAYBut where are the sauna photos? WHERE ARE THE PHOTOS?

What? You thought I’d post photos from the party?

The flight to London the next day was about as anti-climactic as you could get.

We were simply relieved that there were no problems with our tickets. Tears of gratitude nearly flowed as the woman checking us in never once used words like “delay,” “mechanical problem,” “human error” or “not our responsibility. Next, please.”

But, you know, there are worse fates than being stranded in Helsinki.

Still, what on earth could compete with an experience like Ropecon (pronounced…oh, nevermind…).

A few conventions stand out as truly special events, the kind I’d encourage anyone to try to travel to at least once, before they die. Cons like Warpcon in Ireland, or CONvergence in Minneapolis. And there are others.

My short-list now has grown by one. Ropecon was an exceptional time for Judith and me, and I can’t thank our hosts, and everybody at the con who was so kind to us, enough.

Go. You must go to Ropecon. Seriously.

Just be careful if someone mentions wrestling.

John

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