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It's almost a month now since I went to Brașov for the Children of the Night International Dracula Congress, but as I have also been away to Whitby and Warwick for the weekends since I got back, this is the first time I've had a quiet Sunday available for writing about it. This event was the successor to the World Dracula Congress which I attended in Dublin in 2016, and another is already planned back in Brașov again for 2020. It was smaller in scale than the Dublin Congress, with a core of about twenty of us giving papers, but also a pretty large additional audience of local students working on tourism degrees. The link here, fairly obviously, is that Dracula is such a huge tourist draw for Romania (whether they like it or not), with the conference timed to coincide with a local Dracula Film Festival, and those in the tourism industry in both Brașov and beyond are busy thinking hard about how best to present and capitalise on it. So the students came along to learn more about an unavoidably central figure for Romanian tourism, and I guess to experience the conventions of an academic conference.

Meanwhile, I found being part of a smallish core of academic presenters actually really enjoyable. After all, we all had a shared passion and a great excuse to talk about it almost non-stop for the whole conference, so we had all become very much firm friends by the end of the experience. Here we are in front of the conference venue:

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We were a very international bunch, with a full ten nationalities represented across that line-up: Romanian, Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, Portuguese, British, American, Brazilian and Japanese. Classics conferences are of course generally international too, but with Classics conferences there is usually an clear majority of delegates from the country where the conference is taking place - so e.g. I went to a conference in Vienna a few years ago where the majority language was very definitely German. With this conference, no one language really had a distinct plurality amongst the core delegates, let alone a majority, and that meant that for the first time I really saw how English operates as an international language in these contexts. When a Polish-speaking delegate wanted to chat to Japanese-speaking delegate over coffee, they used English because that was their strongest shared channel of communication. Standing there with my Duolingo-level elementary grasp of Romanian and an awareness that I could have functioned perfectly well for the whole week without even that, it was eye-opening and humbling to see.

The other main difference between this and the Dublin conference was that this time I had a paper of my own to contribute. The idea for it came to me when I re-read Dracula just over a year ago and noticed properly for the first time how many Classical references are woven into it. Since no-one appears to have examined these as a set before, that created the perfect space in which for me to write a paper entitled 'In old Greece, in old Rome: Dracula and Classical antiquity'. In fact, I'm profoundly grateful to Bram Stoker not merely for drawing on his Classical education and the established tradition of inserting Classical references into vampire stories, but also for deploying them in the service of three strong major themes: tyranny / autocracy; the fantastical and the pagan; and sexual predation. When I came to put the paper together, those made for a really clear and obvious structure and also liberated me from the feeling that I needed to discuss every individual one of the references I had identified. Rather, a list of the whole lot on the handout combined with me discussing the most interesting selected examples worked very well indeed.

I made sure I was suitably attired for the day of my paper (which happened also to be the first day of the conference):

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And a fellow conference-goer kindly took this picture of me in full flow:

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I'm happy to say I got a great response afterwards - lots of people coming up to me to enthuse about how much they'd enjoyed it and to chat to me further about what I'd covered over coffee afterwards. Between that response and my own feeling about it, I am pretty confident that it is worth making the effort to bring it to wider audiences in the future. There are plans to publish the conference, though perhaps not immediately due to other publications which the main two organisers need to get finished first, but meanwhile I have also agreed to present it to the Dracula Society on October 5 next year - so any London-based chums who want to hear it, pop that date in your diary now! ;-)

The other papers at the conference came from a very wide range of disciplines and covered multiple different topics. Dracula operates as a centre of gravity for almost infinite branches of investigation, and at this conference we had papers on vampire films, vampire literature, the supernatural creatures of Shinto animism, political vampire metaphors, Romanian folklore beliefs, Dracula as a tourist attraction, Polish horror cinema and Greek vampire traditions. Some highlights for me included:
  • Cristian Pralea and Georgeta Moarcăș (Transilvania University of Brașov, Romania) talking about Romanian folklore beliefs, especially concerning strigoi (often translated as 'vampires', but probably better as 'revenants' because they are pretty different from the western literary vampire). This was a really well-researched and thoughtful paper. Working primarily from a huge corpus of beliefs collected as part of a Romania ethnographic survey conducted in the 1970s, the speakers drilled down into the stories, looking both for the common themes around how people become strigoi and how to respond to them, and individual and local variants, and thinking about the social needs which these beliefs answer, relating as they do to themes of sex, death, community and religious beliefs. I was particularly interested to learn that not all strigoi are straightforwardly bad in Romanian folklore, with a sizeable minority of stories featuring strigoi who had returned from the dead to help their bereaved families, and were only found out and destroyed after outsiders had noticed odd behaviour or things which didn't add up and forced a community reckoning.
  • Hans Corneel de Roos (conference organiser and independent Dracula researcher) presenting some of the illustrations which accompanied Mörkrets makter, an early Swedish adaptation of Dracula serialised in a newspaper and magazine in 1899-1900. These were absolutely beautiful turn-of-the-century line art, further enhanced by some sensitive colourisation by Hans, and illustrating very closely the Nordic version of the story as I know it from the abridged Icelandic translation, Makt Myrkranna (LJ / DW). I can't share any here, as Hans is working towards a publication based on these images and therefore asked us not to take any pictures, but this will certainly be one to watch out for.
  • Alicja Sułkowska (Bauhaus-Universität) on the relationship between film roles, star image and alternative music for Bela Lugosi on the basis of Dracula (1931) and Brandon Lee on the basis of The Crow. The core point of the parallels between the ways in which both actors became utterly subsumed into their roles in the public imagination was strong enough in itself, but along the way Alicja also offered some really interesting observations about the relationship between vampires as apex-predators and urban landscapes which they know better than any human, and the use of Detroit in particular as a dystopian setting for The Crow.
  • Svetlana Seibel (Saarland University) on vampire life writing (i.e. fiction written in the voice of a vampire) with a particular emphasis on Fred Saberhagen (1975), The Dracula Tape - which I was one of the few other conference delegates to have read! I was a bit disappointed by that novel when I read it, probably because so much time had passed between me first hearing of it and me finally being able to read it, during which time I inevitably built it up in my mind into a much more perfect novel than it could ever have been in reality. But Svetlana made a very good case for it as a self-aware take on the genres of both vampire fiction and life writing, their possibilities and the contemporary context of emerging ethnic literatures, which makes me feel more inclined now to give it another go.
  • Nina Anna Trzaska (University of Adam Mickiewicz) on the tradition of the Greek Vrykolakas from ancient mythology to modern literature. Nina is working on a PhD on the Greek vampire tradition, which from what I heard at this conference will be a really valuable piece of work and an important contribution to vampire studies. The finished thesis will have one chapter each on ancient mythology, Byzantine and modern folklore and Greek vampires in modern literature, but she focused in her talk on the second of these - which of course made her paper a nice complement to the paper we'd heard earlier on Romanian revenant beliefs. Nina was very modest about her work and very earnest about seeking feedback and constructive critique from the audience, but in my view she is doing excellent work already. She raised all sorts of interesting issues such as the importance of understanding Greek vampire traditions within the framework of Orthodox religious beliefs, the related source problem posed by the fact that most of the written accounts of Greek folklore are authored by Catholics, and the impact of the Greek landscape on the local mythic tradition - such as the common remedy of marooning supposed vampires on uninhabited islands. Once again a researcher whom I'll very much be following with interest in the future.
On the final afternoon of the conference we were also summoned into a different room for a workshop session entitled 'Out of the coffin! Can Romania's tourism jump with Dracula leading the brand?' I had no real notion in advance of what this was going to involve, but it turned out to mean sitting all of the conference's presenters around a table, with the local tourism students lining the walls of the room behind us, and asking us how we felt the Romanian tourist industry could best capitalise on the Dracula connection. I wouldn't have expected to have a huge amount to say about this if asked about it in the abstract, but it turned out that after three days of intensive Dracula discussions, and all of us chipping in ideas, some pretty clear themes emerged - primarily trusting visitors to understand both the difference and the relationship between the historical Vlad Dracula and the fictional vampire, and while not being seen to discourage the more creative and imaginative side of Dracula tourism (which would clearly be counter-productive), being there with solid historical information for when people are ready to access it. I'm only gradually coming to understand myself how little of the latter most Romanian people really have at their finger-tips themselves, so that the presentation of myth as history which is often in evidence at Dracula tourist sites isn't always so much knowing and wilful catering to what tourists want to hear (as I'd initially assumed) as simply not having better information available in the first place. Certainly, one of the key points which the Romanian participants in the workshop seemed to feel was worth taking away was the need for better education about the historical Dracula, and everything associated with him, in Romania itself. Anyway, this is me contributing my two cents to the workshop:

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We also found plenty of time for fun in between what were very enjoyable papers and workshops anyway. Every day for lunch we went up to the main university campus on the hill above the city and the conference venue, where our local host Florin Nechita plied us with home-made palinka:

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This is a plum-based spirit which, once distilled, ends up entirely clear and 50% alcohol. Along with ţuică (also plum-based and frequently home-brewed, but usually a little less potent) Romanians drink this on a more or less medicinal basis, knocking back a shot or two daily for good health. Florin clearly considered it part of his role as host to make sure we had plenty of it, and also enjoyed telling us about how he had made sure of being able to distribute it to his own hosts recently at a Japanese conference. He'd checked in advance how many bottles of alcohol he was allowed to bring into the country, and been told three. So he popped three 2.5-litre bottles of palinka in his suitcase, and then every time he had a 500-ml bottle of water or iced tea, he rinsed out the bottle, filled it with palinka instead, and presented it to one of his Japanese contacts. I can only say it is a good thing there wasn't a fire in the hold of his plane on the way!

We also had a vampire costume competition, deservedly won jointly by Nina, Magda (another of the conference organisers) and Svetlana, as pictured below:

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And were ushered into the opening night of the Dracula Film Festival, without really knowing what was happening or what we might be about to see. It turned out to be Halloween (2018), on which my verdict may be summed up as 'OK I guess if you like that sort of thing' - but I'll write it up properly as a film review later.

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Our conference days were long and busy, and segued into busy evenings of dinner, film festivals etc too, but we were given a tour of Brașov itself by no less than one of Florin's tourism students on the first afternoon. He did a great job, too, although I was more busy listening to what he told us about the history of the town than taking pictures, so this is the only decent one I really have:

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Meanwhile, at the end of the conference, Saturday was our official excursion day. We started off in the morning with a trip to Bran, which guards the Transylvanian side of one of the mountain passes into Wallachia.

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More than any other castle in Romania, this one gets marketed as 'Dracula's castle' - in fact, when my parents went there in 1987, it was already billed as such for the sake of tourism, even though the whole western vampire tradition around Dracula was fairly little-known in Romania at that time. In reality, it has nothing to speak of to do with the historical Vlad Dracula, or indeed the fictional vampire Count, other than a picture of it featuring in one of the books which Bram used while conducting research for his novel. In fact, one thing I hadn't fully understood before we visited it is that it wasn't even habitable in anything approaching the levels of comfort usually expected by the nobility until the 1920s, when Queen Maria of Romania (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) began converting it into a summer residence. Before that, it had been a purely functional military fortress, and indeed its interior rooms and their inter-connecting corridors are pretty small and poky, just as you would expect from a place not originally built for grandiose living. Its popularity with tourists of course generates lots of revenue, in turn allowing a lot of restoration work since it was recovered from the Communist regime, with roughly one new room of the castle being opened up to tourists every year. But no matter how many rooms they open, those corridors will always remain narrow and crowded, so that you have to have a fairly high tolerance for other people to be able to visit it. I think my favourite features were the 'secret' stairway leading up through the interior of a wall between two floors (originally a defensive feature to allow the garrison there to hide in case of an attack) and looking out from the tower into the valley which the castle guards to see a crumbling old wall which once represented the border between Transylvania and Wallachia (the last two pictures before the well, above).

Then in the afternoon we proceeded to Târgoviște, a full two-hour drive away into Wallachia, but worth it for us because it contains the remains of the Curtea Domnească where both Vlad Dracula and his father had their princely residence. Prime features include the Chindia tower, which as far as I understand was originally a bell-tower attached to a now-ruined church at its base which later became fortified into a stand-alone structure, and was built either by Vlad or his father; remains of the main royal court buildings; a still-standing Orthodox church which post-dates Vlad's era; and a rather fine statue of Vlad in the local park.

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Needless to say it was very exciting indeed to see, walk around and touch places which Vlad himself had inhabited and (probably) had built! I had known that the Curtea Domnească existed and was visible for some time, but hadn't quite appreciated just how much there was to see there, or what a lovely town Târgoviște was in general. There are still quite a few more Vlad-related sites in Romania which remain for me to visit, but given that I'm pretty certain I will be going there again in 2020 for the next Dracula Congress, I can be sure I will have the opportunity to tick at least some of them off my list. Can't wait!


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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
huskyteer
Nov. 12th, 2018 10:10 pm (UTC)
Congratulations on your paper! And that looks like a great trip all round. (I've just finished reading the war-in-Rumania trilogy I started a while ago and everyone in that drinks ţuică, so it's good to know what it is and that it really is that popular.)
strange_complex
Nov. 13th, 2018 09:45 am (UTC)
Cheers, thanks - it was great! Good to hear your war trilogy depicted Romanian drinking traditions faithfully. ;-)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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