Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Rediscovering the New World

It is remarkable how unreliable our memory is. I have lived two years in the US, and I have visited it several times since then, but not for a couple of years. And see, I have forgotten it all. I have forgotten the endless lines at passport control (but perhaps they have become worse). I have forgotten - or suppressed - the megalomania of American hotels. I have forgotten how the waiters pour you the infamous bottomless cup of coffee even before they utter the likewise infamous "And how are you today?" I have forgotten the boredom of restaurant chains. It is as if I were here for the first time, and everything is "curiouser and curiouser".

I am in the US, more precisely in Orlando, Florida, for a conference. No, I am not even in Orlando, FL, but at the Orlando Airport Marriott, a part of completely self-contained world with hotels, restaurants and shopping malls, where you are locked up for the duration of the conference and cannot escape.

John Clute, whom I have met at the conference, describes it in terms of The Magic Mountain. It celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Most of the founders are still alive and coming back every year. You go there, you meet the same people and some new people, and learn that some people have died; you spend some time in a peculiar bubble of space and time that has nothing to do with your everyday life. You know every tiny detail of the routine. You are enchanted, you simply must come back again and again.

It is my first time though. I have known about this conference and this association for years and always wanted to attend, but somehow it has never happened. Now I am here as a guest of honour. It gives me advantage over other newcomers. It is horrible to attend a conference where everybody knows everybody else. This time, I do not have to eat my meals alone, there is always someone who asks me to join. I don't have to sit alone in a corner, someone always wants to talk to me. Still, the conference is huge, just as the hotel is huge, and I never get a sense of belonging. There are ten parallel sessions going on. One discusses vampires, another video games, yet another a particular author I have never heard of. The paper presenters and the audience are passionate about their subjects. They know their Tolkien by heart. They are a magnificent blend of academics, authors and fans.

The conference claims to be international. It sounds familiar from some other conferences in the New World. It means that there are a few stray Canadians present.

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