My trip to Germany & FedCon XX

Well, I’m back from my long-anticipated trip to Deutschland, and Europe’s largest Star Trek/SF convention, FedCon — and what a fantastic trip it was!

First off, I need to thank my German publisher, Cross Cult, and one of its top executives, Andreas Mergenthaler, for inviting me to attend FedCon as their guest, for paying my airfare and hotel costs, feeding me and buying me drinks for five days, and for helping me to really enjoy my first visit to Germany.

The rest of this post is going to be rather long, so I’ll put it behind the cut to spare the disinterested.

DAY 1 — Tuesday, April 26 / Wednesday, April 27: Travel

I left New York City on an Aer Lingus evening flight to Dublin. Those of you who’ve read my account of my vacation to Ireland in 2009 know that I love flying with Aer Lingus, so I was happy that they were my airline again for this trip. I hurried to my connecting flight to Düsseldorf, which lifted off promptly at 7:00 a.m. Let me tip my hat to the fine folks at Dublin Airport’s new Terminal 2, whose efficiency and clear signage made my passage through that facility a swift pleasure.

Filipe, the intern who served as my Guy Friday / Gunga Din in Düsseldorf.

My flight touched down in Germany around 10 a.m., give or take a few minutes. After I cleared passport control and customs, I was met by the Cross Cult intern Filipe, whom the publisher had sent to act as my Guy Friday for this trip. He helped me with my bags and led me to the hotel where I’d be staying.

It had been my mistaken assumption that I would be staying in the convention hotel, the Maritim Düsseldorf. In fact, the convention had housed me at the nearby (walking distance) Sheraton. This was a disappointment, partly because of the minor inconvenience of having to shlep back and forth (though that later proved to be a blessing when the Maritim became a chaotic, noisy party zone on all floors, while the Sheraton remained a placid, quiet oasis where I could sleep), but mostly because the Maritim had a pool and the Sheraton did not, and I had hoped to decompress after a long pair of flights by floating in the pool.

I hadn’t been able to sleep on my flights to Dublin and Germany as I’d hoped, so I was bit of a sleepwalking zombie my first day in country. Filipe told me that I reminded him of the Bill Murray character in the film Lost in Translation, which I thought was kind of funny. We hung around for a bit, got some lunch, and I tried to stay awake so that I could meet the Cross Cult guys, who were driving in from Stuttgart, and adjust myself to local time, but by 4:00 p.m. it became obvious that I could no longer stay awake. I went and took a four-hour nap, and awoke a few minutes before I received a phone call from Andreas inviting me to dinner.

I got up, cleaned myself up, and walked over to the Maritim, where I had dinner at a German-cuisine restaurant with Andreas, Filipe, Markus Rohde, his girlfriend and Cross Cult translator Stephanie Pannen, an editor named Filip (just to make things confusing with Filipe), and a pair of Italian comic-book illustrators who were also a couple, David Messina and Sara Pichelli. The Cross Cult guys gave me my convention badge and a wristband that once tightened can’t be loosened, only cut off—something I wish I’d been told before I’d cinched it around my wrist.

After dinner, we all called it a night, and I went back to my room and soon fell asleep. Not bad for a first day.

DAY 2 — Thursday, April 28: The Con Begins

I got up around 7 a.m. and went to the Fitness Center of the Sheraton, where I discovered that only one of its five exercise machines was actually functional. I jogged for 30 minutes on the treadmill, then returned to my room, showered, dressed, and went to the complimentary buffet breakfast, which was delicious. I had salmon with dill, crisp bacon, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, fresh fruit, and a couple of lattes.

My super-cool VIP con badge for the show. I've never had one that said "BACKSTAGE" on the flip side before. Tres cool!

I moseyed over to the Maritim at 9:30 a.m. and found that the Cross Cult team had not yet arrived, so I walked through the convention spaces and familiarized myself with the layout of the hotel, memorizing the locations of stairs, elevators, bathrooms, meeting rooms, etc.  I signed a few copies of my books that I found at the tables of other venders in some of the dealers’ rooms and chatted with a few fans who recognized me.

The Cross Cult team arrived shortly after 10 a.m., and we began setting up for the opening of the con at noon. Then, with my trusty pen in hand, I took my seat beside artists David Messina and Sara Pichelli for a long afternoon of autographing books purchased or brought from home by the fans. (Messina had a much harder job, drawing original sketches of characters onto blank pages in hardcover editions of his work. I could scribble autographs and inscriptions in seconds; each of his personalized creations took at least an hour, so he was a busy man, drawing late into the nights after the con was closed and early in the mornings before it re-opened.)

True story: there was a typo on the convention’s mass-produced official tote bags. They had misspelled the city’s name as “Düsseldof,” leaving out the “r”. The result was that instead of translating as “Düssel village,” it meant “Düssel stupid.” Blame was laid at the feet of saboteurs from nearby rival city Köln (aka Cologne).

That evening, I was part of the convention’s big Opening Ceremony. Before it began, I, Sara, and David assembled at  meeting point with the con’s actor guests while we waited to be led to the backstage area. I used this opportunity to present as a gift signed copies of the Star Trek Destiny trilogy to actress Nicole de Boer, who played Ezri Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s seventh season. She had mentioned once in an interview that she would have liked to see her character become a captain someday, so I told her I had written the books that made it happen. She seemed genuinely excited to receive them, and I was told that she’d mentioned them to fans during her two Q&A panels at the con. (Not coincidentally, I think, the Cross Cult table sold out of copies of Götter der Nacht, book one of the trilogy, which features Ezri’s portrait on the cover.)

Backstage, I got to mingle and chat with Wil Wheaton, who remembered doing a Star Trek panel with me at Comic-Con a few years ago; actress Arlene Martel, who played T’Pring in the original series episode “Amok Time”; Sean Maher (Dr. Simon Tam from Firefly); Paul McGillion of Stargate Atlantis and the new Star Trek film; and Danny Logan and Jeremy Bulloch, who’ve portrayed young and original Boba Fett, respectively, in the Star Wars films.

Now here was one of the few moments when FedCon, which struck me as a very professionally run operation, fumbled in the communication department. No one ever told me what was supposed to happen at the opening  ceremony, so I thought all I needed to do was go out, stand on stage, and wave. But when emcee Garrett Wang called out the authors, which at that point consisted of myself and Claudia Kern, I realized that we were being handed a microphone. No one had told me I was expected to speak, and suddenly I was standing in front of a room packed with more than a thousand people, and my face projected on a video screen twenty feet tall behind me, with only seconds to think of something to say. Claudia talked for roughly a minute in a rapid string of her native German, while I stared in terror at the bright lights. Then she handed me the mic, and as her applause faded, I said:

“I have no idea how to follow that … because I have no idea what she just said.”

That got a good laugh, so I followed it quickly with the simple declaration, “Hello! I’m David Mack, and it’s great to be here at FedCon and in Germany!” Then I handed the mic back to Garrett, who remarked, “Short and sweet!” and went on with the show. The cardinal rule of public speaking: if you have nothing to say, try to get a laugh, then get off stage as quickly as possible.

After the opening ceremony was finished, I rejoined the Cross Cult guys, signed a few more books, and then I went out to a late dinner in the “old town” section of Düsseldorf with Filipe, David, and Sara.

Verdict on Day 2:  pretty cool.

DAY 3 — Friday, April 29: Daytripping

Sara Pichelli, David Messina, and yours truly outside the cathedral in Köln.

Because the Cross Cult team expected Saturday and Sunday to be the busiest days of the convention, and they wanted me to see something of Germany besides the inside of an airport convention hotel, they encouraged me and “the Italians,” as they often called David and Sara, to take a day trip to Köln on Friday morning. So the three of us met Filipe, who drove us into Düsseldorf. We took a train up to Köln, visited the famous cathedral there, walked through the “temple of commerce” that surrounds the cathedral, had coffee at a sidewalk café, and then shuttled back to Düsseldorf to browse through some art-supply stores and grab lunch at the Pizzeria Pinocchio.

Just after we’d ordered lunch, I commented that sun was especially bright and warm, and I asked if we might move to a table shaded by an umbrella. We did so, and as soon as we settled in at the new table, clouds rolled in and blocked out the sun. Then the wind gusted and pelted us with rain, forcing us inside the restaurant. Filipe, David, and Sara all jokingly blamed me for jinxing the nice weather, so I apologized to the weather gods … and a minute later the rain stopped and the sun came back. I offer these facts without comment.

One question I raised this day was whether I was expected to say something during the closing ceremony of the convention. I was told by more than one source that often, the con’s VIP guests would demonstrate some kind of “talent,” such as singing, juggling, magic, etc. during the closing ceremony.

Quaint "old town" Düsseldorf by day, near the Pizzeria Pinocchio.

This was of immediate concern to me because, as anyone who’s read my Amazon reviews must know, I have no talent — except roasting. But would the con let me even attempt such a thing? Would I even want to, in front of an audience for whom English is not a native language and whose culture does not have a tradition of insult comedy?

We returned to the convention after lunch to find numerous books waiting for our attention—mine needing autographs, David’s needing sketches. Several hours later, we called it a night and headed back into the center of town, by subway this time, to seek out dinner. The group consisted of myself, Filipe, the “other” Filip, David, and Sara. It was late, almost 11:00 p.m., but we persuaded a hostess to let us dine at the Space Burger, where I ordered “the Barbarella,” which is a bacon cheeseburger with Thousand Island dressing on the bun. Afterward, the Italians and I were all too intimidated by the teeming crowds of drunk, partying twenty-somethings that packed Düsseldorf’s restaurant row, so we sought out a quiet pub in old town for a nightcap. As we walked in, I realized the five of us must look like the setup for a bad joke: “Two Italians, a Portuguese, a Slovak, and an American walk into an Irish pub run by Germans…”

A few beers later, we called it a night, and the con was half over. I went back to my room, flipped channels, and was unable to fall asleep until 3 a.m.

DAY 4 — Saturday, April 30: The Marathon

Inexplicably, I awoke at 7:00 a.m., despite having gone to sleep at 3 a.m., and I was unable to get back to sleep. So I did the only thing I could think of: I turned on a light and started writing a roast script. I doubted that the con would let me get away with doing this, but the jokes were coming to me in a rush, and I had to start writing them down, because I feared that if I didn’t, my head would explode.

I won’t inflict all my hastily concocted jokes upon you, gentle reader, but I’ll share a few that I was pleased with:

Scott Bakula: You are to acting what the British are to cooking.

Dirk Benedict: You are to acting … what Scott Bakula is to acting.

I spent last night trying to make a joke out of Wil Wheaton’s career — then I realized he’d already done it for me.

It’s great to see Tony Amendola here. Tony, your funeral director called, he needs you back in your casket tomorrow by five.

Some of you know Sean Maher as Simon Tam from Firefly, but most people in Los Angeles know him as “our waiter.”

As MacGyver, Richard Dean Anderson could use a pen, a paper clip, and a rubber band to make  bomb. These days he uses two pounds of bacon, three pounds of cheese, ten eggs, and a whole loaf of bread to make breakfast.

My favorite cosplayer at FedCon XX, as a TOS Starfleet officer and as Codex from The Guild.

Anyway, you get the idea. My friends from Cross Cult pitched the notion of me roasting the actors to FedCon, and I discussed it with emcee Garrett Wang, but no answer was immediately forthcoming. So I spent the day signing autographs and admiring the efforts of the con’s record-setting cosplayers before going to dinner at the absolutely awful Restaurant Classico in the Maritim hotel. The highlight of dinner was when, as I was being shown to my table, I was greeted by Jeremy Bulloch as he passed by in the other direction. That’s right: Boba Fett said “hello” to me. That was just cool.

I stayed out until 5 a.m. drinking and mingling at the FedCon party inside and outside the hotel’s bar, Morley’s, with my new friend Werb Wolf, aka “Scotty.” Apparently, the night before May 1 is a big party night in Germany, and I was told everyone goes out dancing because it’s part of how they celebrate the pagan holiday of May Day.

In total, I went for 22 hours on four hours of sleep. Long, long day, but a total blast, so it was worth it.

DAY 5 — Sunday, May 1: Con’s End

Dragged out from the previous night’s carousing, I slept in until 11 a.m., then I went to the Sheraton’s restaurant to drink coffee and perfect my roast script, just in case I was allowed to use it. Around noon I walked over to the Maritim, where I met with the con’s programming gurus, who let me know it was unlikely they’d be able to fit my bit into their closing ceremonies, because I had been misinformed once again: there was no “talent” portion of the show, just quick farewells. Ah, well. I guess that was for the best.

The FedCon XX commemorative coin.

I spent the afternoon smiling through my hangover while signing autographs, and then, at around 5 p.m., I went to the assembly point for the closing ceremonies. Sequestered in the green room with the actors, I chatted again with Nicole de Boer and Tony Amendola and Richard Arnold. My bit on stage was simple and quick; then, as I left the stage, the man who founded FedCon, Dirk Bartholomew, handed me and each of the other VIP guests a commemorative FedCon XX coin as a keepsake. Backstage after the ceremonies I talked for a bit with Jeremy Bulloch, until he and a German author digressed into a conversation about soccer that, as Jeremy observed, made my face “go blank with boredom.”

Then I went back to my hotel, finally cut that damnable wristband off my wrist, started packing for my travel the next day, and was subsequently interrupted by a visit from a hotel employee, who asked me when I was leaving. It was then that I learned FedCon, despite having previously assured my publisher that I would be accommodated through Monday, had declined to pay for my room past Sunday. So, I called Andreas, who took care of my last night’s arrangements with the hotel before meeting me, the Italians, Filipe, Filip, and a pair of senior editors from Germany’s largest comic-book publisher Panini Comics, Steffen and Jo, for dinner in the Sheraton’s restaurant, Otto, which I should add is truly excellent in all respects.

After a fabulous dinner of great food and much laughter, we all exchanged contact information, talked of where and when we all might meet again, and said gute nacht. I went back to my room, finished packing, and turned in early to prepare for my return to the United States.

DAY 6 — Monday, May 2: The Return

I woke up at 6:30 a.m., showered, went to breakfast, then collected my things and checked out. Filipe met me in the lobby at 8:05 a.m. and helped me porter my bags back across the road to the airport, and he waited with me until I’d checked in and reached the security perimeter. I thanked him for all his help during my stay, and I inscribed and signed some of my books for him, as well as a McDonald’s cup from which I’d drunk and that he’d saved for his collection. (Don’t ask; it’s just too damned weird to explain.)

The flight from Düsseldorf to Dublin was on time and perfect, and I didn’t mind that I had a five-hour layover in Dublin, because the woman who’d sat beside me on the flight from New York days earlier had told me about the Aer Lingus passenger lounge. For a paltry 25 euro I purchased admission to the lounge, where I partook of free sandwiches, beer, coffee, pastry, bottled water, internet access, a charging station for my iPod, and comfy chairs with footrests so I could recline and take a nap. It was ever so civilized and pleasant. Had I needed or desired it, they also offered shower facilities.

My flight home to New York was equally pleasant, and we arrived early. I breezed through immigration and customs, got a taxi with very little waiting, and was blessed with fast-moving traffic all the way home. I went from arriving at the gate at JFK to walking in the door of my apartment in just 55 minutes. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Final Thoughts

Sara Pichelli says, "Ciao!"

Germany is a positively beautiful country, and its people are wonderful. I had heard that Germans had a reputation for being cold or aloof or humorless. If so, I met none of those people. The Germans I met were friendly, outgoing, fun, and vibrant. Germany is a magnificent country, one that I look forward to visiting again someday.

The only things I’d have done differently, if I could go back in time and do this week over: I would pack my leather jacket (it was colder and damper there than I’d expected, based on forecasts), and I would have remembered to bring business cards.

As for FedCon, it’s big and well-organized, and there’s no denying the high caliber of guests it attracts. I think it speaks well of the convention that many of its actor guests this year were return guests. I felt deeply honored to be part of this twentieth-anniversary event, and I hope that FedCon will one day invite me to be its guest again.

As for the fans, they are just as fun, quirky, and passionate as those I’ve met here in the U.S. The cosplayers are every bit as imaginative and industrious, and man, do they know how to party!

In short: FedCon was a blast! Ich bin ein FedConner!

One Response to “My trip to Germany & FedCon XX”

  1. ChocoBetty

    Lucky you! You missed the evacuation of the Sheraton on Monday.

    It’s great to read that you had a good time in Germany! Thanks for the report!

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