The Belated and Incomplete Record of Baltic Adventure
Illustrated with potentially interesting photographs and maps
In which Lee & Venetia travel (widely), encounter many delays (all compensated with fancy meals and rooms), negotiate with jet lag (badly), cruise the Baltic Sea (in the company of better writers), drive through former SSRs (but not Lithuania), spend a week in Helsinki at the World Science Fiction Convention (winning a pretty ribbon for Best Body of Work), share a delightful luncheon with a Presidential candidate (who lost), and finally, spend 5 glorious hours soaking in the Blue Lagoon (which looked green).
All the Travel
The first section of our travel was meant to be the Writing Excuses cruise of the Baltics. Venetia got home from the San Diego Comic Con after she and the fabulous ladies of Badali Jewelry absolutely won the convention. She took two days to clean and get all the last minute planning taken care of and then packed like mad on the morning of the flight. Lee’s Mom kindly ferried us to the airport and all was looking good until a mysterious mechanical malady put us 3 hours behind schedule – just long enough to put the kibosh on our carefully planned 2.5 hour layover. Our flight over Washington state allowed for amazing views of the forest fire smoke and an incredible sunset. We watched the Lego Batman movie carefully synced up on our individual screens – a ridiculous process, but easily Venetia’s favorite Batman. Later, while Venetia slept, Lee admired the astonishing moonlit view of Greenland’s ice floes.
We arrived somewhat bedraggled, dazed, and confused in Iceland. Because our delay was purely mechanical, Iceland Air put us up in a Keflavik hotel with fluffy white beds and after a brief period of necessary passing-out, we walked into the brisk ocean wind in search of food. During lunch (it was lunch, right?), we watched a slow but steady trickle of children and parents walk along the edge of the inlet below our hotel and disappear around the corner. After lunch, we followed not only the path of the children, but the footprints of a Giant – our hotel was located on the coast right above Giganta’s Cave!
Venetia was literally beside herself (see below):
We were enchanted by Giganta’s cave, so lovingly constructed for wide-eyed naifs (like us). Though we were somewhat alarmed at the Pacifier Tree. Apparently Giganta really appreciates used pacifiers….
In order to make it to our cruise on time, we returned to the airport in the small hours and were rerouted through Copenhagen, finally on our way to Hamberg. There, we found the cruise line’s bus and they drove us through the green and rain-streaked German morning on our way to Kiel. We arrived just in time. We looked up at the HMS Fantasia (not pronounced like the classic Disney film – they preferred “Fant-a-Seea”), showed our IDs, checked our bags, got in line, and boarded our first cruise ship after the inescapable (and inescapably tacky) photo-op.
We’d would like to say the first thing we did was find old friend Mary Robinette Kowal and gratefully borrow of her wisdom and serenity to navigate the ship. Sadly, that was actually the second thing. Instead, the moment we stepped onto the ship we were beset by the ship’s drinks sales team (yes, that’s an actual job description). As we do not drink, they found us to be a mystifyingly hard sell. “What about tea?” they asked in desperation. “Soft drinks? Hot chocolate?!” Finally they told us if we wanted to drink any water on the ship we would have to buy the drinks tickets anyway. So we did, but once we realized water was freely available everywhere on the ship, we got our strangely-expensive water passes refunded.
Due to the surprise additional day/night/day travel we arrived with a lot more jet lag than we expected. Our cabin was comfortable and possessed of a balcony overlooking the sea which we would later enjoy. But we fell instantly into sleep and stayed fast asleep until was time to practice the ship safety drills. This was our first opportunity to mingle with the other passengers in their crisp European shirts and light-colored pants. Our grungier more-American travel clothes seemed to stand out as much as Venetia’s haircut. That evening we discovered that our assigned dining room was in the most confusing area of the ship and that the only way to reach it was to go up to Level 6 then take the stairs back down to Level 5. Anything else resulted only in failure and hunger. Hardly the Oregon Trail, but counter-indicated on a behemoth fancy-pants European cruise ship.
Though Venetia found its glittering show stairway dangerously attractive, Lee continued to grumble about its other gaudy, gratuitous surfaces, which rendered signs (such as they were) illegible. Bad design is truly international.
The first new folks we met from the Writing Excuses group were our dinner companions that night, and they were fantastic. Writers make the best conversation partners, and we felt instantly welcome. We were very late to the Writing Excuses party, and not just because we’d missed our Icelandic connection. We’d asked Mary about the cruise belatedly, and were relieved that there was still a little room for us at the inn – though we missed a good deal of the pre-cruise conversation and arrangements. When we go next year (somewhere closer to home, no doubt), we hope to be more in sync from the start.
Day 1: Copenhagen, Denmark
But!….we were just there! We inadvertently visited Copenhagen three times on this trip and that turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as we love the city. On this pass, we lucked out by joining Tempest’s group and finding that it already included Finnish writer Ninette Bahne and her husband, whose years living in Denmark had made them locals. The city was quiet on a Sunday morning, but though the real destination was the National Museum (see below), we encountered many quaint and cosmopolitan sites en route.
The Museum looked small from the outside (Lee’s decade as a Smithsonian docent clearly skewed his perspective), but housed a truly impressive collection, featuring countless local artifacts and even an Egyptian collection way up in its 4th floor attic, unlike any we’d ever seen. Oh the things we learned – from the importance of the iron-bearing meteorite in ancient Thule (sledged to Denmark the old-fashioned way decades back), to beard-braiding, to the almost intact Viking ship that had been sunk in a bog by the town that defeated it, to gorgeous gold jewelry, to rune stones, and (of course) to Disney’s two-bit Hercules figurines demonstrating what the vasty hoard of ancient figurines were really all about.
Our brains had become overwhelmed by new information, and our bodies by 10 hours of jet-lag, so we returned to the ship before our compadres. And of course fell fast asleep until it was again dinner time (this time at the table of Aliette de Bodard and her adorable family). I fear that we were too bleary to be good company, but happily we got to see the amazing Aliette later in the trip.
Afterwards, we went up to the game area to pass out Missionary Chocolates. Imagine our surprise upon learning that these unsanctioned foodstuffs were actually forbidden contraband! Strangely, for a cruise with masses of food always on offer, their policy was “No outside food or alcohol!” Happily, they never checked our luggage and we, who had joined the cruise late, had no notion of those strictures. For the rest of the cruise Venetia delighted in slyly carrying her big box of chocolates, furtively checking for any crew, and then offering contraband chocolate to our surprised new friends.
This was our introduction to bestselling author (and Writing Excuses instructor) Jasper Fforde and his wonderful wife Mari. Despite differing amounts of jet lag, Lee and the Ffordes often found themselves in the same places at the same time. Lee could wish for no better company.
Day 2: At Sea
In between bouts of sleep and scavenging for edible foods at the eternal but poorly-labelled buffet (we are so spoiled by Portland’s exceptional cuisine!), we explored as much of the ship as we could. Both of us wrote during Dan Wells’ hour of random writing prompts. Lee’s resulting story was a meta utopian mystery, Venetia’s a more diabolical tale of cults and other societal horrors. Later, Wesley Chu spoke about writing action scenes and the importance of conveying sensory information in combat, be it simple or complex.
That night, after dinner, we found ourselves on the main deck, watching our 20-story ship pass under Denmark’s massive Storebaeltsbroen (Great Belt Bridge). We didn’t have the best viewpoint, but it was a strange and unprecedented sight all the same.
Day 3: Stockholm, Sweden
We awoke to a beautiful and ever-changing view of the Swedish countryside. The sun rose behind us and the long shadows became shorter as we dined with David Levine, the Chus, the Ffordes, and many other people who came and went. In high summer, there seemed no more beautiful place than the Swedish countryside. We watched the ship dock, and then caught a bus into the city where wandered the water front.
We ignored the lure of the Stockholm and Tessin Palaces, and even the communal yoga in the King’s Garden. Instead, we chose to stray outside, basking in the glorious summer day – first to Skeppsholmen island and then, across another bridge, to Kastellholmen. The museums were closed, but the hostels and little cafes were buzzing. After a lovely idyll at the castle on the point, we wandered back off the islands and uptown into the city seeking sushi (which was absolutely scrumptious!). We saw very little, but loved the little we saw. Maybe one day we’ll return….
Back on the ship, Lee fell fast asleep while Venetia took in Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent presentation on how to best critique other people’s work. Part of the attraction of this cruise was that we knew many of the worthies that were on it. This night we dined with Howard and Sandra Tayler – two of the very best. Howard had been a Writing Excuses podcast regular for ages, but we know him from many conventions past. Venetia is a long-time fan of Sandra’s blog.
After dinner we headed up to the deck with a huge crowd of writers. Just in time for the ship’s return pass under the Storebaeltsbroen. This time we wanted the highest view and climbed fore to as high a point as we could reach. Here again, we encountered the Ffordes – but this time they were already in good company – with Kelly. Lee had known Kelly when she lived in Portland, but she now lives quite near the Ffordes in Wales – the world may not be small, but it is wonderfully strange! Watching the ship’s lights illuminate the underside of such a massive bridge as it barely skimmed by underneath was remarkable (and yes, the extra height made a crucial difference to the spectacle). We were relieved that we were onboard only the 8th largest ship in the world. It seems that Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas has to lower its retractable twin smokestacks, ensure its ballast is correct, and that it maintains the correct speed, lest disaster strike. And that’s without considering the terrors (and higher waters) Global Climate Change will bring….
Tallinn looked lovely in the distance as we surveyed it from the breakfast table at the back of the ship. But we knew that our travel plans would bring us back to Tallinn, and there were other things on our minds – mostly the group of hot tubs that dotted the main deck. It was a fascination that profoundly refused to pay off, and we were deeply disappointed to find the hot tub temperatures set at a mere 98 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not a hot tub! That’s a body heat tub. Even a tepidarium is less tepid than that. So Lee opted for a Thai massage instead. There was no denying the talent of the masseuse, and her ability to subdue someone twice her size was amazing to experience. While Thai massage was an interesting thing to try once, it proved a little too intense and he’s glad he’ll never have to try it again.
That night we traveled to the mystery floor for dinner as usual, but the room was so loud it was impossible to even hear our tablemates. We retired to the buffet and hunted food there. It was an early night as the combination of jet lag, age, and sheer noise took its toll.
Day 5: St. Petersburg, Russia or Why the Revolutionaries Had It Right
We hope to never return to Russia. It was beautiful but also… well, sort of awful. First, there was the quayside queue. And what a queue! It seemed like the majority of the 4000 people on our boat wanted to sightsee in Russia but first every single one of those people had to stand in line to stand in front of a Russia custom’s agent. This was not a quick or convenient check-in or trip through customs. This was 5-10 minutes per person. You may think we are exaggerating but no, a person in line with us timed it. We waited well over an hour to pass from one side of the dock to the other. There was a lot of typing and a lot of hand motion below the counter where we couldn’t see what was happening , and we suspect that the border agents were photocopying every page of each passport. Lee was asked about his time in the army. He was so startled by this ridiculous assumption that he laughed out loud and shook his head. That seemed to work well. They were less suspicious of Venetia (which is a funny thing if you know her desire to have been a CIA agent).
Once we were through the idiot line (some of our shipmates with real military service were not so lucky – they were held and questioned for another hour). This seemed all the more astonishing considering Putin’s arrangements with the non-Democratically-elected “leader” of the US, but more on him later.
While other members of our group traveled together on specific Writing Excuses outings, we were thrown into the general population of tourists. The bus we ended up on had an English speaking group and a French speaking group, each with its own tour guide. We were driven around for brief stops to take picture at various picturesque locations. Then there was the not-so-brief stop at the underground tourist trap/market where “Every doll is hand-painted”. There was no way to avoid it, once in, the trapped tourists had to walk the entire U length of the market to escape again. I wondered at the percentages paid, and if the guides themselves saw so much as a ruble.
* An important note about the Minions above: The Russians have only purchased the rights to the orange minion.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (AKA Church of Spilled Blood) was something we’d never heard of, but was hands-down the most stunning and extraordinary spot we visited. Venetia was charmed when a smooth local fellow put trained pigeons on her shoulders. Since we were in Russia such a short time, and had no cash or money, the pigeon handler decided to angrily castigate us. Apparently his charm was reserved for the birds….
The majority of our time (other than the tourist trap and our meal) was spent at the Hermitage which gave us an overly-adorned look into the Russian Royal psyche. We were not allowed to take pictures in the Gold Room, so called because it’s filled with objects made of gold – including the first known toy made out of gold and so many amazing archeological treasures. Contrary to the name, the Gold Room was not one single room, rather it was a series of rooms filled with more and more ostentatious objects d’art. The wealth got us down. Well, not so much the wealth itself, but the grotesque concentration of it. It only takes so many rooms of carefully crafted and bejeweled golden snuff boxes to understand that the Russian revolution had a damn good point.
Our tour guide proved another point of interest, mostly for how much we annoyed her and her desire to give as good as she got. She was very strict about us staying on schedule and moving along as a group but she also did not approve of us talking among ourselves or anyone not properly appreciating the priceless works of art she was showing. In our case, this meant that we got stern looks and scornful comments as we (and a similarly inclined Asian lady) took pictures of the wall paper instead of the paintings that hung on it, and marble stands instead of the the precious objects mounted there.
We were quite happy to leave at day’s end… until we discovered that the line to exit was just as long as the line to get in. What? By sheer dumb luck, we again picked the slowest line, a mistake that we only fully understood when we got to the counter and saw the same border agent who’d grudgingly admitted us hours earlier. She was unsurprisingly unamused by Lee’s “Lovely to see you again so soon!”, but she had no cause to keep us in Russia.
As we left the harbor we said a grateful goodbye to the giant phallic Gazprom Headquarters (recently moved west from Moscow) we’d first seen in the hazy morning light. Venetia thought it a rocket launcher and secret military fort, but Lee thinks it’s Putin’s middle finger to the West….
As we passed out of St Petersburg, Lee was enchanted by the odd islands, the ancient and decaying sea forts, the north/south highway that crossed the Gulf of Finland under our ship, and, most of all, the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral. Despite the wonderful viewing height that a giant cruise ship affords, Lee’s photos did it no justice. If you haven’t seen it, we recommend looking it up on a Google Image Search.
We met award winning author, translator and lawyer Ken Liu at dinner and though he was alone with Writing Excuses people at dinner, we were were utterly charmed by his wife and children when we met them later.
Day 6: At Sea
Jasper Fforde’s talk began with him reverse-engineering the opening to the Fall of the House of Usher, eventually letting us hear the original in its fulsome glory: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” He talked about the importance of wordplay, and play generally – about how a writer’s curiosity and engagement with the world help shape how his readers engage with his writing. The talk was a delight from start to finish.
Growing throughout the cruise, but really crystallized today, was the realization that Lee has a story to write. We had talked about it many times over the years, fun bits of trivia and notes about how the story would go but for the first time, we sat down and said, yes we are doing this. It is going to take a lot of work and a hell of a lot of research but we are both excited and motivated to make this book happen. Note: If anyone reading this has interesting tales of San Francisco from 1906-1916, please let us know, won’t you?
Day 7: The Return to Terra Firma
We disembarked the boat to a peculiar triage, as each passenger waded through the pile of baggage the stevedores had assembled, that they might somehow find their own. It reminded me of something I’d not thought of in decades – a ski swap I once attended in Colorado – a room full of slightly stressed people seeking cumbersome objects in bright colors while trying not to get run over or run anyone else over. Once the bags were sorted we boarded the bus back to the Hamburg airport. Once there we…. waited. Every half hour or so, the airline sent new employees to tell those waiting that they, the employees, were also trapped and that they also knew nothing about where our plane might have gone. Happily, Ken Liu’s children provided us a gleeful distraction (though I suspect they proved less entertaining to their parents), as they awaited their flight to Santa at the North Pole.
Eventually, a plane from a completely different airline appeared and whisked us to Copenhagen. And for the second time in a week, we missed our connecting flight. This time, there was no Giganta to distract us, but there was a retrofitted 60’s hotel in a great part of town that we would never otherwise have been able to afford. And with it came the most delicious dinner and breakfast of our entire trip.
The following morning’s plane flight went off without a hitch and though short, the flight was beautiful. As the plane banked, Lee noticed a gently winding river that ran nearly parallel to the coast, meeting it just outside Riga. And on this strip of land a series of lovely looking buildings. Upon landing, and meeting up with old friend Eric Olive, Lee asked about the landmass in question and learned that it was called Jūrmala and that it was where Eric and his young family lived. Eric drove us from the the airport and as near to our our AirBnB in Riga as he could. Parking in the old town is difficult, and using rolling bags on the ancient cobbles is as silly as it is noisy. Eric took us out for food and a tour of the astonishingly beautiful town. We were in Riga partly to see Eric and partly because it had a reputation as the home of some extraordinary Art Nouveau buildings. Both parts proved a great success.
That night in our large bed in a very short loft in our charming old town apartment, we watched the Netflix show GLOW and added many mosquito hide trophies to those already on the ceiling above us. The place was wonderful, but wow. One can only imagine the bites previous tenants must have received.
The next day we explored, venturing out in different directions, down many different streets, never in danger of getting lost because the old city is truly (adorably) finite. We shot reference of buildings – not Art Nouveau, for they are in their own neighborhood, not the older part of the city- sought out the work of local jewelers, watched our fellow tourists, craned our necks to see the details on the high towers, and admired the masses of amber and wool that Riga has on offer.
Eric picked us up after we witnessed a sketchy drug deal (really the only conclusion we could come to) and drove us out to Jūrmala. The water was delicious to Americans like us, far more used to the icy waters of the Pacific Northwest. Lee and Eric sat down at a Latvian cabana bar on the beach and caught up with one another’s lives. They also talked talked politics – really, it would have been impossible not to, amid the mistresses and children of today’s Russian oligarchs). Venetia hadn’t brought a swimsuit, but that wasn’t going to stop her from spending a blissful hour dancing through the waves in her free Batman underwear. Now that one comes to write it, “free Batman underwear” sounds even stranger than it actually is….
Later, after a brief stop at the corner store, Eric took us home to meet his lovely wife Linda and new baby. The evening was clear and fine, if a bit chilly. Eric grilled dinner while Venetia enjoyed the hammock. Later, Eric’s teaching colleagues Jamie and Veronica arrived and we spoke about art, writing, and specifically the story of Jamie’s that Lee will be Illustrating in the book Eric is producing called ‘Deep Signal’ (which will also feature pieces from friends Stephen Hickman, Mw Kaluta, Ken Liu, Aliette de Boddard, and many others). It was a great night, and we loved talking about Hamilton with Jamie and Veronica as they dropped us back in the heart of Riga afterwords.
We repacked our art show (now more awkward for a canvas printed in Riga and kindly delivered to us by Eric when we arrived) and made it to our tour rendezvous early. We had an entertaining time watching a surly bus driver smoke and pace and wondered if he was our tour guide. Thankfully a charming young man appeared right on the hour from the opposite direction and brought us over to his van. Venetia quickly claimed the front middle seat by virtue of being tiny and Lee got the front window seat. And we were off!
Venetia originally booked the tour with much skepticism as an alternative way to get from Riga to Tallinn (we found it strange that no convenient commuter train existed). But before the day was even half way over she decided it was the best tour she has ever taken. It might have been our guide’s description of the sport of Wife-Carrying, but it was probably his comprehensive knowledge of the area and its history. The first stop was the Soviet bobsleigh track, still used as a training course, though in the summer the skateboarders and wheeled-trainees take it over. We walked halfway down the amazingly long track, admiring its twists and scarps. Lee achieved a (previously-unrealized) ambition by passing the rest of the group running sideways up the wall. A location that had sounded silly in the trip description proved even sillier, but much more delightful, in person.
Later, we drove deep into the woods and walked amid the sandstone cliffs along the winding tannin-rich river below. The soft cliffs were inscribed with the names and symbols that numberless tourists had engraved in them (“feel free to add” said our tour guide). Lee found it an embarrassing embodiment of a saying he’d grown up with in the American West “Fools’ names, like fools’ faces, are often seen in public places”. Venetia picked and ate many tiny wild blueberries that grew everywhere in the meadow. She might well have continued her appreciation of nature for hours had the rest of us not threatened to leave her behind.
The restaurant where our tour guide usually took his people for lunch and his back-up restaurant were both closed, so we went a little out of our way to a beautiful countryside brewery and ate a gourmet lunch – astonishing to think it would be anyone’s third choice. We visited the small medieval fort and Cathedral in the ancient city of Cesis, and then (after we crossed the long border into Estonia) we visited the often built and too-often destroyed Pärnu – which these days hosts a jaw-droppingly large choral festival. We ended the day when our guide pulled us into a central square in Tallinn. And for all that we wanted to enjoy its sites and sights, we arrived too late and planned to leave too early the next morning. Like Stockholm, it was beautiful. And like Stockholm, we enjoyed it only in passing.
We eventually arrived at our Air B&B on foot, and were dismayed at its ramshackle appearance. It looked unsafe – all rotting timbers and peeled paint.
But when that night’s landlord arrived and let us in, we could not have been more surprised – it was completely up-to-date inside. And it featured a full BATH TUB. We stayed in that night, and bathed to our heart’s content, while considering how much our digs resembled the secret headquarters of some clandestine spy organization.
Helsinki and the World Science Fiction Convention
We took the ferry from Tallin over to Helsinki; a popular ferry, it turns out, for transporting cheaper Estonian alcohol over to Finland. We sat as far away as we could from the loud casinos and watched cartloads of duty-free alcohol pass by.
As we exited the ferry, Lee’s phone rang, and the call was coming from inside the house. Well, from inside the country really. An interview was set up for a few hours hence and we stopped by our delightfully cozy and comfy AirBnB (properly Moomin-bedazzled) before heading out to the convention hall.
Lee was especially vexed by the language. Unlike most other languages that share at least a small bit of vocabulary with the mad polyglot nightmare that is English, Finland uses the same letters but (as Steve Martin once said of the French) they have a different word for EVERYTHING! He’d have taken some comfort in completely different letterforms, but that’s just not how the Suomi roll….
The Worldcon proved a strange reunion for Lee, with no fewer than 6 members of his High School Science Fiction club in attendance! The Finnish art show was definitely a first for us, and a first for them! Apparently Finnish sci-fi conventions do not traditionally have large group art shows, and this was the first they had ever created. We were told that they don’t even have pegboard like we do (What!?! Is that even possible?) So instead, they created a gallery of pristine white foamcore (it was a beautiful and gleaming locale!) which we immediately marred by hammering nails into.
As soon as the art show was set-up, Lee met up with the man from the phone call and accompanying camera man to be interviewed. The interview seemed to go swimmingly, and after it’s completion the art show director said to Lee “I see you are interviewed by our national radio.” We had no idea.
This was a record-setting Worldcon for both us and the convention. Expecting to top out at about 3500 attendees, more than 7,000 people showed up – with many more turned away, due to the fire marshal’s regulations.
Because we had been warned after only a few hours at the conventions that it was difficult moving through the hallways on that first night, we arrived at the location of Lee’s Infamous Bad Book Cover Show almost an hour early and found the hall already packed with people. When the previous panel let out, only a few people from the room exited into the hallway, and others squeezed in as best they could. We made our way into the room using “I’m the speaker” privilege. Venetia immediately set to work on technology and when she was finished, there was still over a full half hour until the actual start of the panel. Two things seemed clear:
1. No one else was going to fit into the room.
2. No one seemed interested in leaving, despite the rising heat.
Lee said that he’d heard Finland was famous for its saunas, but suggested that the panel begin immediately. There was instant and sincere applause. All was going smoothly, laughter and groans abounding, when, five minutes after the time the panel was scheduled to start, the lights flickered back on and a convention organizer politely interrupted to inform Lee that there were still more than one hundred people outside the room wanting to get into the panel. He asked if we could possibly move to a new (and larger) room he’d arranged. Venetia quickly took the mic to tell him, yes, send the people outside to the new room but that Lee would in fact finish up his presentation here in full since he had started so early! After the first panel, Lee raised to the second, larger, room and did it all over again.
So, an interview on Finnish National Radio, a standing-room-only panel, and an immediate repeat performance of the now even-more-Infamous Bad Book Cover Show. Quite a day!
The whole convention was really great for us. Lee met with Stephen Jones and talked about art and the genius of Kim Newman. Stephen has licensed two of Lee’s paintings for his books so far, and his ‘The Art of Horror Movies’ just arrived this week.
After a panel on storytelling, Greg Manchess shared his only copy of ‘Above the Timberline’ with us. What a beautiful book!
There were many reunions with friends from earlier parts of the trip as many of the Writing Excuses writers were also at WorldCon. Eric Olive arrived and interviewed artists and authors for Deep Signal. We are very much looking forward to again listening to the conversation between Ken Liu and Aliette de Bodard which was so fascinating and so full of interesting data that Lee barely said a word! And those of you who know Lee will know just how rare such occurrences are….
Outside the main entrance to the convention hall were some extremely sexy blacksmiths (though Venetia argues, when are blacksmiths not sexy?) and it was always amazing to see what they were up to. When the extreme storm came through Helsinki their booth was smashed to smithereens but they rallied to rebuild with the best sign ever (and if anyone has a picture of the sign, please send it to us!) “Satan fucked us.”
The highlight of the convention for Venetia was seeing Daveed Diggs and his band Clipping perform live, just a few feet in front of her. She danced through the music and got to meet and hug Daveed afterwards. She was a little flabbergasted to be in total giddy fan girl mode, but he’d watched her dance throughout the show and seemed genuinely happy.
Outside of the convention, we found Helsinki to be a most civilized and beautiful city. By civilized we mean that all the modern conveniences that we admire were abundant: easy to use public transit, friendly people, easy to navigate menus for those with food allergies. Their elevation of the popsicle to gourmet status seemed peculiar – probably because we don’t (yet) have such a thing in Portlandia…. Our first trip into the city was to a grocery store where a bemused clerk got to share our joy at finding all of the lactose-free and gluten-free foods that we could eat. In fact every restaurant we ate at in Helsinki had clearly labeled menus denoting gluten and lactose. And the occasional rant against the backward views of certain grotesque Americans. We couldn’t agree more.
A perfect example of Helsinki was the restaurant we found on the water’s edge across from some park blocks. We had been walking for some time and were desperate to eat and it was the only location for blocks that wasn’t an ice cream shop. In the USA, such a prime tourist trap location would be expensive in price and cheap in quality but we didn’t have any other choice and at least we could sit and have a great view. We immediately realized our good fortune when we read the sign inside the front door which explained that this is one of the greenest restaurants in the world. The food was delicious and not any more expensive than any other place in Helsinki would have been. The view was indeed spectacular and we were well refreshed for more adventures.
Afterwards we had a surprising (and hilarious) Interview with a Vampire.
It seems that the handsome young man with the fangs and cape out wilding with his mates was not wreaking havoc on the locals. Instead, he was engaged in a sort of writing project in the form of a ‘Twilight’-themed rewrite for his young fiancée. Did we know this ‘Twilight’? Could we recall the actions of the book? Would we be willing to tell the young Edwardian vampire what came next (after the previous summation by another random person they’d encountered on the street)? Who were we not to do our part?
Iceland (This Time We Really Mean It!)
We stayed at the Dead Dog party as late as we could into the evening on Sunday because early Monday morning we were flying back to Iceland. After dropping our luggage at our hotel (the Northern Light Inn, chosen for it’s close proximity to the Blue Lagoon and its hilarious website text) we headed into town to meet up with one of our favorite authors, Andri Snær Magnason. When last we saw him, he was full of stories of his adventures and this time there were even more stories as he had recently run for President of Iceland. Sadly for us, Iceland, and the world, he did not win. But happily, his artistic output has remained fierce and prolific.
We had lunch with him and his wonderful and interesting friend. Iceland has a most amazing community of artists and we talked all through the meal about many projects and travels.
A nap was required afterwards because the jet lag never really left us and then we had one final adventure of the day: Venetia’s first float. It was a new addition to the hotel and we were both enchanted by the futuristic alien shape of the float tank. Floats, for the uninitiated, are large shallow tubs of water packed with epson salt that you can float in. Before marketers figured out how best to sell them, they were known as “sensory deprivation tanks”, and while that name is accurate – they are sound-proof, dark, and the temperature of the water is meant to be body temperature – “float tank” is just smarter. Though there was a painful period as her muscles fought not to let go of all the tension, in the end Venetia found it to be the best massage she has ever had. She now has a membership to Portland’s own Float On and can host guests. In addition to rooms and tours at Casa Moyer, we can now also offer discounted floats if you are visiting us and want to experience floating.
The last day of our trip could not have been more perfect. We got up early for breakfast, checked out of our room, and then bused over to the Blue Lagoon where we spent five glorious hours soaking in hot water. This time we discovered new regions we hadn’t explored on our last visit; Venetia in particular loved the sauna to warm up everything that was getting cold out of the water and Lee really enjoyed massage by waterfall. We tried multiple variations of mud masks and met a lot of interesting people.
We parted at the airport, Lee heading back to Portland and Venetia to Indianapolis for GenCon. We both watched Westworld on our separate flights and Venetia saw Logan as well. And thus ended our adventure. Of course, the adventure never really ends as evidenced by how long it has taken us to write this travel log! Venetia traveled with Badali Jewelry to Gencon then DragonCon while Lee hosted multiple house guests, saw the solar eclipse, and got a metric ton of work done.
In closing, an alternate map of our adventures from Venetia’s personal addiction: Civilization VI.