Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
May 4-7, 2007
Ginger Graves and Suzanne Vanweddingen
I began my ten-day UK adventure in London the week prior to Collectormania. I had a blast playing tourist--ogling the Crown Jewels, laughing through a double-decker bus tour and Thames Cruise, visiting Bath and Stonehenge. As the week progressed, more friends arrived. It felt like a family reunion. I have met some amazing people through fandom. It's always wonderful when a convention comes along, giving us an excuse to get together.
Early Saturday morning, I went to Euston Station and caught the train to Milton Keynes where Collectormania was being held. According to a Brit friend of mine, Milton Keynes is a "purpose-built city," which explains its unique brand of ugliness. It was built in the '70s and looks it. There's not a bit of charm to be found. However, there is a hockey stadium and a gi-normous mall.
Collectormania is held at one end of the mall in a large meeting area. The vendors set up in the middle of the room and a long row of tables is set up on each side--this is where the guests sign autographs. Collectormania has what is known as a virtual queuing system. Since there is not enough room to actually form a line, you are given a ticket with a number. Once you have your number, you are free to roam about. You just have to keep coming back to check the progress of your line. They will have a number posted at the front of the line, so you know when it is your turn to get an autograph.
This year they did photo-ops with several of the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer guests as well as a few others. I believe Avery Brooks was one, as well as the young "Superman." I had photo-ops with Tony Head, Charisma Carpenter, and James Marsters on Saturday. Because of this, I had carefully planned my day in order to arrive early, thus giving myself time to freshen up and catch my breath before having my picture taken. The best laid plans…. My train was over an hour late arriving into Milton Keynes. Someone had jumped onto the tracks at the Milton Keynes station and delayed everything. Consequently, I was running behind my carefully planned, laid-back schedule. However, I did manage to arrive in time for my first photo-op, which was with Tony Head. The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent queuing for photos. Note to self: Having picture taken with sexy men = fun. Having picture taken with tall, slim, gorgeous woman = Ben and Jerry's Phish Food moment.
After the photos were taken, I went in search of our René. Since his line wasn't long, I was able to avoid the virtual queue and go through immediately. It's always a pleasure to see René. I know one day I will meet him and actually be witty and charming. However, this was not the day. Haha! I was still a bit frazzled from my morning dash, so what I talked about was my late train. (Head, meet desk.) Like I said, one day I'll be charming and witty. René was gracious as always. I had an old Deep Space 9 cast photo that I wanted him to sign as well as my Sly Fox playbill. He was also personalizing "Odo's Bucket" cartoons for charity, so I had to have one of those. It is now my new favorite thing. I was also finally able to get a photo taken with René. And it's a good one!
Collectormania is a signing convention, much like the comic cons in the U.S., so there are no Q&As to speak of. I think the only Q&A this year was done by James Marsters (which I attended, of course). Because of this format, Sunday was much like Saturday--lots of queuing, both virtual and actual. Queuing is a party in itself. I have made lots of friends while waiting in a convention queue. There were parties on Saturday and Sunday nights. I skipped the one on Saturday, but I went on Sunday because Tony Head was singing. He's got a lovely voice. Given an opportunity to hear him sing, I was willing to fork over a few pounds. Personally, I don't feel the parties are worth the money-but Tony certainly was.
After Tony sang, the gang headed to the Chinese restaurant next to our hotel for dinner and conversation. Good food and good friends. Many of us won't see each other for at least a year, probably more, so we wanted to take the time to just enjoy each other.
All in all, Collectormania was a lot of fun. If you are ever in the UK during the first weekend in May, I would recommend heading up to Milton Keynes for the day. You can meet your favorite celebrity, do a little shopping, and (best of all) catch up with friends.
(Website manager's note: Suzanne discovered René's Page through her interest in René's Boston Legal character, Paul Lewiston. She lives in France, and received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature in November 2006. Suzanne says: "My topic was the gothic railways in European Literature from 1830 to 1935. My fondness for railways is both a hobby and my academic field. Since December 2006, I have maintained an online magazine about railways, if you want to improve your French. It's not "academic" stuff, just poetry, prose, and images. And I am always looking for new talent, so if anyone wants to contribute in any way, you'll be welcome!" Suzanne is a writer, with one book and a few short-stories published so far…and plans for many more!)
Excerpts from an Adventurous Travel Diary
Welcome to my life. Yes, let's say these words are not just words, they are the witnesses to my life, or better, its illustration. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine you are me. Now open them and read, otherwise you won't be able to enter this chapter of my life and story.
My story begins one evening, in the middle of April, when I learned that I had been accepted as a speaker for a Study Day at the University of Southampton on the topic "Critical Voices." The railway lover in me decided to talk about railways and, at least, I was inspired. Because writing a paper in 15 days is quite stressful, not to mention writing in a foreign language!
But that was nothing compared to the joy I felt--I mean right after the shock I had realizing I was about to present a paper in English for the first time in my life--because the Study Day was taking place one day before Collectormania. Which meant I could take the opportunity to go there and meet René Auberjonois. In other words, I had the best of luck, I could mix work with distraction! And believe me, it's quite the perfect motivation….
Day 1: Wednesday 2nd May 2007
Southampton, or the town "where the streets have no name"
After a short drive from my home in France to Luxembourg, and then an equally short flight to London's Heathrow airport, I took a bus from Heathrow to Southampton, and set out to find Avenue Campus, where the Study Day was taking place. Have you ever had the impression that the more you walk, the more your destination seems to go far away from you? As if it actually was running in the opposite direction to challenge you? It seemed that I was walking endlessly. When I finally worried that I could really be lost, I asked two girls, who told me the street I was looking for was… the next one on my left. So much for being lost.
After checking in at my Residence Hall, I decided to visit the two railway stations nearby. Thinking I was heading to St Denis, I ended up on the opposite side, at Swaythling, an old station, closed unfortunately. As I was taking a picture of the building, a policeman came toward me and joked about the fact I was taking photos of the station instead of him. Yes, I know, this sounds like nonvital information, but as you read further, you'll understand. Trust me.
I never did find the St. Denis station by the way…
Day 2: Thursday 3rd May 2007
In the morning, after getting briefly lost on campus, I found my way to the lecture theatre, and the first panel began right on time. The day's topics included Katherine Mansfield, Montenegro, a study of various translations from Baudelaire, and a master class about the Viva. And finally there was me. Surprisingly, I was feeling very calm, even if it was my first time speaking for 15 minutes in English. Of course, I read my paper. I didn't want to take any risks. And I think I did quite a good job. Yes, for sure, there was this terrible accent I have but hey! I did my best to erase it or at least to sound "more English." And the best part: I actually enjoyed presenting a paper in a foreign language. So, that new challenge of mine was a personal little victory as I really wanted to figure out if I could do it. The only uncomfortable event occurred at the question break. One professor asked me a question in French and I got lost because I couldn't decide in what language I should answer. I supposed at that time that she wanted to show how good she was talking in French, but I chose to answer in English. Which she seemed not to appreciate. I guess my diplomatic skills are still to be improved.
After some closing speeches, the Study Day was declared closed and we all said goodbye. I went in the direction of the bus station and, as I was still very early, I walked around and found a Borders with a Starbucks inside. Now, I need to explain to you about my Cinnamon Dolce Latte addiction. Last time I went to London, a friend dragged me into a Starbucks and, as I didn't know what to choose, I picked the first thing on the menu, which happened to be Cinnamon Dolce Latte. And I became addicted. As you may know (or not), Starbucks shops in London are very popular and I spent four days drinking this beverage. Another thing you should know is that in my town in France-or in any town within about 100 km-there are no Starbucks. As a result, the U.K. goes with Cinnamon Dolce Latte to me.
A bus trip followed by a long walk in London (I was afraid to get lost in the Tube) brought me to my youth hostel, to the very same room I had last time. There was music and songs outside, coming from the pub nearby and, as strange as it may sound, I felt as if I was home.
Day 3: Friday 4th May 2007
Tourist promenade around Milton Keynes
I left the hostel early in the morning to go to… Starbucks. Yes, there is one on the main street. For once, I tried a Caramel Macchiato, which was my breakfast, and then I went to Victoria Station. I thought I could take a few pictures there. Bad idea. After three shots I was told I was only allowed to take people, not objects or the building. Can someone explain to me how I possibly take picture of people without having part of objects or buildings in the background?
So I left and went to Victoria Coach Station, found my bus, and finally reached Milton Keynes a few minutes after 10:00 a.m. The so-called Milton Keynes Bus Terminal was the most weird and anxious place I've ever seen. It seemed to me that we were just next to the motorway and that we had no way to go out of the place other than with a car, cab, or bus. Besides, the building was half burnt so I wasn't even sure I had to go down there. But the bus driver told me it was the right place. I guess he knows better than me. Once the bus had gone, I suddenly asked myself if it was a good idea to be there after all. I had no idea where the Centre was and, frankly, the place was so depressing that I felt like taking the next bus back to London. But I finally discovered that there was a bus that would take me into the town. The ride was pretty nice and highly surprising. Milton Keynes is surrounded by a lot of old little villages, all charming. A few times I was tempted to get out at the bus stop and take a walk there. But I was concerned that I might not find the bus stop again and that I would get lost forever.
It took about 20 to 25 minutes to reach the shopping centre. I was already in shock because of how ugly Milton Keynes is compared to all the surrounding villages, so when I got out of the bus, instead of paying attention to where the other passengers were going, I remained standing on the pavement between two bus stops as people stared at me, half amused, half curious. For those who don't know me in the flesh, let me give you one indication about me: I'm kind of Victorian/Romantic gothic. And I'm not a freak, thank you for asking.
Well, trying to find my way--no, this time I was not lost, well, not quite--I visited the theatre, a market, discovered an attraction, and then I decided I was on the wrong side of the street, that it was too cold to walk outside, and that the best move would be to find a warm place before I froze to death. I could even see the headline on the newspaper: "A René Auberjonois fan freezes on her way to meet her favourite actor." And in tiny letters as a conclusion: "Let's hope her ghost found its way to the actor, at least to discover if it was worth the risk." Didn't I tell you I was a romantic?
I didn't die. I entered the Centre and it's just huge. Really huge. I congratulated myself for buying my return ticket for the evening. By the time I could have visited the whole building, it would already be evening! Funnily, as huge as the building was, I found it strangely empty…until I realized I was in an area where there were no shops. I walked a little and I fell right into Collectormania. Imagine signing spots at each end of the "event place" and, in the middle, a mess lot of stands with tons of objects and photos for sale… This was what I could see from the outside, because, no way would I ever go inside and risk my life only to admire Starfleet vessels, Star Wars costumes, and whatever sci-fi stuff. Yes, you can laugh at me, but from experience I know that sci-fi fans can be quite dangerous. Not all of them, of course; I know some pretty cool people and besides, I have nothing against sci-fi. I love E.T, Men in Black, and Star Trek.
As I walked to the signing spots, I was surprised that so few people were actually meeting the actors. (Do I need to mention that I had no idea who most of the actors were?) But I found René quite easily, and decided to follow my friend Marguerite's advice and go straight ahead and talk to him. So much straight ahead that he gestured as if he was alarmed by my sudden arrival. Or was it the sight of a girl dressed all in black coming toward him? I suppose I looked more like a Buffy fan at the moment.
I must admit I was a little nervous, but I followed Marguerite's advice and presented myself. René remembered signing a photo for me when I joined ORACLE and said that, in spite of his French name, he spoke French not well, to which I answered that I knew what that was like because I have a Flemish name and can barely speak two words of Flemish! We talked for about 10 minutes and, as other people were waiting, I said I would come later to get an "Odo's Bucket" drawing. The fact is I get very nervous when I see that other people are waiting; I feel like I am being a nuisance. So I almost ran away. I really should get out of my crypt more often….
I'm not a terrorist I'm just a railway lover!
When I left, my first move was to go to…guess… Starbucks! I ordered a Cinnamon Dolce Latte and a "biscotti" to go with it. I asked the young employee how to go to the train station and he was kind of surprised when I told him it was just to visit it. He gave me very good directions. It wasn't that hard to find; the only tricky thing was to go out from the right door of the building and then, straight ahead.
I didn't try to take any pictures from inside the station, but I found a nice spot outside. I took photos of the arrival of a train, two employees hanging an advert, and the signs of "Milton Keynes" from a place with some vegetation and a fence. But as I was moving away, a lady security guard ran after me. She told me I couldn't take any pictures of anything from the station (trains, tracks, platforms) without express permission--a rule for preventing any terrorist attacks. I explained to her that it was part of my research about railways and handed her my international student card, and she decided that we could try to find the station manager to get permission. The railway employees we spoke to were very nice, they were even willing to give me the authorisation, but alas, they did not have the authority. Besides, everyone knew I had no way to know about that "no pictures" rule.
Unfortunately, the station manager was not nice at all. Quite on the contrary. He yelled and screamed at me hysterically. I was so astonished that I remained silent, in shock. Even the security guard tried to intercede for me but then he yelled at her, too. It was quite hard to follow what he was saying because he had quite a strong accent and I grabbed only one word on four. He probably realized he was too aggressive because suddenly he calmed down (a little) and explained I should go through the customer service and that they could give me the authorisation I needed. And he gave me a flyer with the number on it. As if I ever wanted to come back to that hell of a station!
After he went away, I had to review my pictures with the security guard and erase them all. No buildings, no trains, no tracks. When she saw my pictures of Victoria Station she asked if I had the authorisation for those, blah blah blah…I lost my patience because wait, it's none of her business what happens in London, and I told her quite coldly that it was enough and I shut down the camera.
I finally left. The whole experience had really shaken me. I don't know if it's the fact they make you feel like a very bad person for taking pictures, the yelling station manager, or erasing the nice pictures, but I was sad and angry at the same time. I decided to go back to the Centre and then leave the town as soon as I could.
Back at the Centre, I did a little shopping (after all, it was a shopping Centre!). I wished I was not taking the plane, I would have bought a lot of things! For instance, all the lovely skull socks or bracelets I saw… Then I went to Starbucks and bought another Cinnamon Dolce Latte, which made the guy who served me the first time laugh. He couldn't help but remark "you really like it" before he asked if I found the station. I remained there a little while, writing in my diary, and then decided to go back to Collectormania.
When I arrived, René was alone (except for a staff lady). When he asked me if I had a good time, I told him the whole station adventure. He and the woman were surprised about that new rule, especially the woman, who had no idea the security level was THAT high. Then we talked about photography and that's how I learned that gray could actually be an interesting light. I showed him my pictures and we played with my camera as he joked about all the railway pictures that identified me as a terrorist indeed. But then people came and I went to the side, while they got an autograph and a picture with René, who posed with everyone who asked. It's not every day you see someone so nice with people. He even "repaired" a woman's camera that remained frozen! People came and went; sometimes there was no one, sometimes two or three persons. A guy even asked for a photo with Aron Eisenberg and René together, and on that occasion I grabbed my camera, too. Mind you, I almost missed the shot. Both were so funny posing that I couldn't help laughing while trying to take the picture.
Since I was there to get an "Odo's Bucket" (that's a new word for my vocabulary), I got one, as did the staff lady--she has the same first name as me. After I got the drawing, I was about to say goodbye and leave, but people arrived at that moment so I just pushed myself to the side again. After they were gone, a guy suddenly arrived who was a Boston Legal fan. He had a wonderful picture of Paul Lewiston, and both René and I wondered where he got it. He explained it was on a stand at the middle of Collectormania. As he was about to leave, I asked him if he would show me where the stand was and I offered to René to get one picture for him as well. And now, dear Reader, I know why you're laughing. You remember what I said earlier, that I wouldn't go inside the dealers' area because of all the crowds…. But sometimes, there are occasions where you have to make a little sacrifice for a noble cause. At that moment, it was mine. Oh well, if you insist, there was also René's noble cause. But let's go back to the story.
René suddenly decided to join us and get the picture, so the man--Jamie--and I met him at the little "stage door." As we were about to enter the crowd, there were a lot of people, and my brain registered a wave of panic and I hesitated, afraid I would end up crushed. But my stupid brain had also forgotten that René was behind me and Jamie and that, since he is tall, it was like having some kind of protector with us. Jamie led us to the stand and the two guys were quite surprised when they saw René. Their surprised look would have made a nice picture. While they were searching for the picture of Paul, Jamie left us and the sellers got René to sign a poster. But they had no markers, so he went to back to get his own. In the mean time, I got the picture, too, and I saw that René was in the other row, trying to find his way back to the stand. So Super Me went to his rescue like the good super heroine I am. What? You don't believe me? Okay then, I just went at the end of the row and waved frenetically to get his attention, which I did. I also got the attention of a dozens of people who probably thought I was out of my mind. But I'm used to it so I don't mind.
After René signed the poster, we went back to his signing spot and he suggested I could come and sit at his table if I planned on staying around. So I followed him and got ordered to take a chair. And you know what? That was a good idea, because as I sat I realized how tired I was. Unfortunately, the staff lady didn't seem to appreciate my staying there…. Anyway, that was nice. Especially when a huge group asked for a photo with both René and Aron, it was just hilarious. I also met Michael Winslow, but as you can guess, luckily René told me in which movie he had played because I really had no idea who he was. And as always when you have a good time with people, time decided to run away and finally, because I didn't want to risk missing my bus, I had to think of saying goodbye.
My bus to London had the kind of driver who immediately makes you feel at home. When we boarded, he had a word for each of us, winking at the girls, saluting the guys. When I showed him my ticket, he remarked loudly that "now I have a Goth on board." The bus was full of people. I found a place next to a girl as the driver was yelling that if he heard any loud music he would confiscate the music player, as well as any cell phone if we were too noisy. And I thought he would do it because a guy played his music quite loud and suddenly the driver yelled "I can hear it!" and the noise immediately stopped. And now, writing these lines, I cannot help but laugh as I imagine Odo as a bus driver. I guess the journeys would be quiet, unless Quark is on board!
Day 4: Saturday 5th May 2007
After a night full of weird dreams, I woke up early and went to breakfast. My stomach got a shock. After being fed only with Cinnamon Dolce Latte, it was surprised to get something else, and I almost rolled from the table back to my room. Later, on my way to Liverpool Street Station, I stopped halfway at a Starbucks to get my last Cinnamon Dolce Latte. Since I was quite early to get to the airport, I went to watch the trains. Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. I wasn't doing anything, just staying away from the barrier separating the platform from the hall and looking at the trains that were ready for departure, but suddenly a guard hurried up to me and asked if, when, and where I was departing, as well as from which platform. I was so surprised that I babbled something in response with a terrible French accent, and he directed me to the information desk. Since when has looking at trains become illegal, too?
So I took my Underground ticket and I found my way through the tunnels and onto my train. I got off, like most people, at Holborn and found my way to the Piccadilly Line. One thing that is great with the London Underground is that even if you don't see the name of the line, you still can follow it by the colour attached to it. So you have two chances to not get lost and, as you can imagine, it's just perfect for people like me.
I reached Heathrow safely and, once aboard the plane, I exchanged places with a lady so she could sit next to her husband and so I got the seat at the window! As you can guess, I spent the flight writing in my diary so I wouldn't forget everything that happened. Mum picked me up at the airport and drove me home, and we had a lot to tell to each other.
And now, guess who wants to accompany me next time I get a chance to see René Auberjonois? My Mum!
Photos provided by Ginger Graves and Suzanne Vanweddingen
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