I just got back from the Writing Excuses Retreat cruise. It will be difficult to properly convey the surreal and amazing experience of attending a writing conference intertwined with a Baltic Sea cruise. Either by itself would have been a wonderful way to spend my time. Together, they were a truly once in a lifetime privilege. I’d never been to Europe before (unless you count UK), and this would be my first experience in a place where English was not the primary language (unless you count Miami). I had no existing friendships with the other attendees, and only the most tenuous acquaintance with Dan Wells. I was equal parts excited and nervous with no real idea of what to expect.
My trip began with an air travel jackpot: my neighbor on both flights was an empty seat. German customs proved just how much America is doing it wrong. It took all of 5 seconds, and the guy didn’t even say a single word to me. Jasper and Mari Fforde provided the most charming company on the bus ride to Kiel. I have to admit my brain didn’t connect Jasper with the instructor mentioned in the program until after I got on the ship, though that probably allowed me to relax and enjoy their company as one human to another— one of the more wonderful aspects of the WXR dynamic. By the time I got to the hotel, I’d been awake for 23 hours and was beyond any coherent socializing with the other attendees milling about.
Boarding the MSC Fantasia the next day was an inherently chaotic mess, but the staff did an admirable job of cat-herding us all. Pictures and diagrams can’t convey an adequate understanding of just how incredibly huge a 1100 foot long, 4000 passenger cruise ship actually is. Or of just how much effort it took to get around on this monstrosity. Including the little scavenger hunt they sent us on to pass the time while our luggage was delivered to our cabins, we put on 5 miles of walking and stairs the first day. I know this because everybody with a Fitbit-like device loudly proclaimed how far they’d gone after every time we moved to another location. I spent 3 months laughing at myself for training to go on a vacation, but it turned out to have been vital to my survival. I swear I got more exercise during this cruise than I did in the last six months.
Copenhagen proved both beautiful and exhausting. We started out with the Kastellet. Despite being next door to the Little Mermaid, I didn’t bother going to see it. Seen the pictures already. It’s a statue. They have a lot of those in Europe. After the fortification, a group of us followed Mary Kowal to Nørrebro Bryghus for lunch. She forgot to mention it would be a 2 mile walk until we were halfway there. The food and company, however were excellent, so I consider the blisters worth it. I also have to say that an open balcony door on a cruise ship is the best white noise generator you could ever ask for.
The next day at sea was when the jet lag and sleep deprivation finally sloshed my brain goo a little too hard. That afternoon I had one of the worst panic attacks of my life. I managed to get back to my cabin before it really hit me, so nobody else had to deal with it but me. Unfortunately my roommate and a new friend did catch me before I’d fully recovered. The WXR staff did provide amazing resources and support for attendees to take advantage of for any kind of mental health issues, but there really wasn’t anything they could have done for me even if I’d been capable of calling for help. It was just a matter of waiting for the storm to pass. Despite the unpleasant speed bump, the rest of the evening went well, including the costume party.
Stockholm was pretty, but the excursion was far too rushed. There was barely time to pee, let alone do any shopping. We got to see the changing of the royal guard, which was neat, and the Ice Bar, which was mostly just a closet-sized gimmick. I’d love to go back someday to properly explore all of the interesting things we flew past on the bus. Waking up to the fjords going by our balcony was the most incredible feeling, and watching them go by at the end of the day really brought Sweden’s beauty home.
As a former Soviet country, Estonia was interesting simply to see the surviving remnants of that time and how much they’ve changed as a society since regaining their freedom. Our tour guide made sure we had plenty of time to shop and explore. My highlight was sitting in the market square in the heart of old Tallinn while Knocking On Heaven’s Door by Guns and Roses blared out of one of the restaurants.
St. Petersburg proved that Russian customs is just as scary and inefficient as you’d fear. They aren’t about to let America outdo them. Everyone made it through eventually, but all of the attendees with government and military jobs were given a thorough round of extra questioning, some in their own nice, private rooms. The city itself wasn’t bad at all. Like the rest of Europe, it was a good mix of modern and historical buildings. It’s tourist-friendly, and many things, especially the metro, have signs written in both Russian and English. However, far fewer people speak English compared to the other countries we visited. I was pleasantly surprised at how much Russian I actually remembered, though I still needed our tour guide to fully understand what was being said at the Siege of Leningrad museum and the D-2 submarine exhibit. Watching Howard Taylor geek out over the submarine was entertaining, especially as I was doing exactly the same thing right alongside him.
The last day of the cruise was bittersweet. The classes taught me useful things I hadn’t heard elsewhere. The instructors and staff were friendly, generous, and supportive. But in the end, it was the other attendees who made the experience so wonderful. The moment anyone saw you wearing that ugly yellow badge, you were instantly welcomed as a member of the tribe. This is especially impressive for a group of introverts, many of whom have full-on social anxiety. While I didn’t fully connect with everyone I met, there wasn’t a single one of them I disliked or wanted to avoid. Pretty damn good for a hundred or so people from all over the world. Quite a few friendships had been forged, and it was difficult to say goodbye to wonderful people I’d only just begun to know. I’m sad that I missed the big group photo. It would have been nice to have proof I was among them.
I’m grateful for this incredible experience, and for the wonderful people who made it happen. I can’t wait to see them again someday and share even more amazing experiences with them.