Just over a year ago, I went to my very first international Esperanto event and I can still remember how nervous I was. I was new to the language so I had no idea what to expect. I had been learning it for six months but had never spoken it with anyone else yet. I eventually mustered up the courage to book tickets to an event, but I was flying completely blind. I was afraid that no one else would turn up or it might even be a scam. As it turns out, it was a fantastic event where I made lots of friends and had a brilliant time.
There are probably a lot of Esperanto learners in a similar position. You’ve been practicising Esperanto on Duolingo and want to speak it but don’t know what the events are like. It’s a bit of a commitment to go to an event as they are usually abroad and cost several hundred euro. So I’ll give you a breakdown of what to expect. I’ve been to five events six times and I’ve noticed a common theme with a lot of them. However, I’ve only been to European events (I don’t know what the others are like) and I’m going to focus mainly on the youth events (the Universala Kongreso is in a category of its own). Youth in Esperanto terms is under 30, though plenty of over 30 year olds come too. I’ll give a guide to the different events tomorrow, but right now I’m thinking of the likes of IJK, SES, JES etc
So to begin, most events are held in small towns usually in Central Europe near the border (to make it as easy as possible for people to reach it). The events are mostly held in self-contained buildings a little apart from the town and the buildings are normally former student dorms or summer camps. In fact a lot of these events resemble summer camps, not least in the fact that most of them are held during summer. The buildings range from decaying former communist to actually really good quality. Almost everything will happen on site from sleeping, eating, classes and hanging out. Depending on the event and where it is held, you can expect 150-300 people and they normally cost 200-300 euro (not including flights).
So the first thing you do is decide where you want to sleep. You have three options depending on how much you want to spend and how comfortable you want to be. The cheapest option is to simply bring a tent and pitch it beside the building (which a few people do). Then there is the amasloĝejo, where a dozen or so people on sleeping bags share a room. I’ve never done this so I don’t know what it’s like but it doesn’t sound comfortable or private, but it’s probably very social. The third option is to have a bed, which I go for every time. This is like a hostel where you have between 2-6 people in a room, while basic, is sufficient.
Next is the food (served in the manĝejo). To be honest, no one ever goes to an Esperanto event for the food. It’s basically canteen food, that is to say not very nice, but usually sufficient. The easiest way to meet new people and make friends is during the meals where you can simply sit down next to a new person and introduce yourself. Complaining about the food is a popular ice breaker. Also Esperanto has the highest proportion of vegetarians and vegans I’ve ever seen. They’re not quite a majority, but there are still loads. So if you don’t eat meat, there’s always a vegetarian and usually vegan option.
So once you’ve managed to navigate your way through a foreign country that inexplicably doesn’t speak Esperanto and managed to arrive at the event, you go to the akceptejo and check in. By an unwritten law all Esperanto events begin on a Saturday or Sunday, but the first day is just for people to arrive and settle in, so not much happens. At most there will be a few games and ice breakers to introduce people and learn their names (which you will quickly forget). At Esperanto events everyone wear name badges the whole time because there is no way you can remember everyone’s name.
Then the real fun begins. Each event has its own focus but the basic theme is to have lectures, talks, workshops and games during the day. These can be on literally any topic at all and the second day is usually about the language and culture of the host country. There are dance lessons, language classes, films with Esperanto subtitles and even an occasional talk about Esperanto (though not many, you find very little propaganda at a youth event). Or you can make your own fun. There’s usually a common room where you can hang out, chat, play cards (cards is very popular at Esperanto events). As these events are usually held in Central European countries during summer, it’s usually incredibly hot, which means a trip to the local swimming pool at least once.
The evenings are probably the best time as that’s when the concert is. Various Esperanto bands and DJs play each night, with a wide range of music styles. A room is converted into a bar selling really cheap drink to keep you going. You can dance, sing, drink and talk the night away. There are a few songs always played that you’ll quickly get used to like Sola, Skavirino, Liza Pentras Bildojn, Ĉu Vi Volas Danci and of course La Bambo. You’ll quickly learn that this song has a very special meaning in Esperanto. There is a special dance where people link arms to form a circle while everyone else dances inside the circle. If you’re inside, you can kiss the cheek of whoever you want and swap places with them until someone kisses you. This continues for as long as the song lasts which is usually 20 minutes.
After the concerts finish the gufujo (literally owlery) opens up. This is a clam and relaxing non-alcoholic area, filled with candles and soft music. Here people drink tea and talk quietly until the early hours of the morning. It is a great break after the concert and is basically a chill out zone. There are sometimes concerts with mellow music here.
There are other events like the Internacia Vespero (International Evening) where people perform songs and dances from their native country and is essentially an international talent show. Like all talent shows it is hit-and-miss with some brilliant talent and some awful cringe. There is the Internacia Kulinara Festivalo where people bring food and drink from their native country. Due to difficulties travelling, having space in your suitcase, especially with flights and keeping food fresh, most people just bring spirits. This means you can appreciate the cultures of the world in a somewhat drunk state.
There is always one day (usually a Wednesday) set aside for a full day of excursions. These are trips to the surrounding area that can be hikes up mountains, tours of castles, walks through museums or anything at all. There is also smaller half day excursions too. There are sports such as a growing tradition for an Esperanto football team to be formed and lose badly against a local team. There are games like Homlupo and Kartoj Kontraŭ Esperantujo.
However, all of this is beside the point. The best part of Esperanto events is not the talks or the trips or even the games, but the people. So long as there are good friendly people there, it doesn’t whether the event is well organised or not, you’ll still have fun. The difference between the best and worst event I went to had nothing to do with the event itself but the other people there. The best part is the new friends you make and the memories you create.
There is a special etoso (atmosphere) at Esperanto events that is hard to describe. Once you go, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but I don’t know how to explain it to someone who hasn’t gone. There is a certain feeling or culture that is only found at Esperanto events. It is also the most liberal and open minded place I have ever been. As mentioned before, there is a huge number of vegetarians as well as a lot of other people who would be thought of as odd elsewhere. There are a lot of openly gay and lesbian couples and nobody is bothered as well as many transgender people (in fact, all the transgender people I know, I met at Esperanto events). It’s the kind of place where a lot of people walk around barefoot (which I tried and is actually quite enjoyable). Essentially it’s a really open minded place where people are comfortable to be themselves.
There is a running joke that Esperanto should be called Edzperanto (a play on the word for spouse) due to the number of couples that are made during events. When you mix young people and alcohol, it’s inevitable that they will get together and Esperanto events are no exception. From my experience there are surprisingly few single Esperantists either because people convince their partner to learn it or people quickly pair off. There are even couples who only get to see each other at Esperanto events once or twice a year. Many people who first met at an Esperanto event have later married and even raised their children as native Esperanto speakers and use Esperanto as their home language.
Far too soon, it all comes to an end. Esperanto events are normally a week long, which is long enough for you to forget that you speak another language other than Esperanto (sometimes I even start thinking in Esperanto) but not long enough. The last day is always a tearful day as people still hungover from the night before (the last night is always a big party) say their farewells. You’d be surprised how good of a friend you can make in a week and many friendships last through years of events. But at the end, you don’t say goodbye, you say Ĝis La Revido! (Until Next Time!)