Event Report: Birka

The short version: I enjoyed myself, though maybe not as much as I expected, and I’m not sure I’ll go back.

The long version is behind the cut.

I’ve been trying to get to Birka since I started in the SCA back in 1999. I nearly made it last year (and, indeed, was supposed to have been granted my Maunche at last year’s Birka), but it was in conflict with a work meeting that I couldn’t miss. So this year, figuring that I didn’t have a job I needed to take time off from and that I had at least enough money to get there and back, I would make the effort.

I left Friday around 11 am. The drive was fine until I got off the highway. At that point, I was waiting to merge into fairly quick traffic with one car waiting in front of me. I’d been driving for five hours and there was a lot of glare. I was watching the oncoming traffic pretty carefully and not (mea culpa) the car in front of me. So when I thought it was clear, I accelerated, only to realize the car in front of me had seen something I hadn’t and had not accelerated, and… crunch. We both pulled over as soon as it was safe, I apologized profusely, and we ascertained there wasn’t any damage either of us could see. We parted with no hard feelings and I drove the last five minutes to the event somewhat shaken. When I got to the parking lot, I realized there was, in fact, some damage to my car: the bumper was no longer flush against the front headlights but there was a small gap around them. Given that I wasn’t driving my own car (it belongs to my mom), I started to freak. If anyone saw me on Friday and I seemed out of sorts, that’s why.

Anyway, I got checked in to the hotel, dumped my stuff in my room, and said hi to Ernst who was down the hall. I hadn’t had any lunch and it was almost 5 pm at this point. (The gas station attendant in Montpelier, VT, had told me there weren’t actually any fast food places in Montpelier… WTF? I wound up buying some cookies and calling it good.) I ran to catch up with Jaji and Sarah and had an early supper with them in the hotel restaurant. Mmm… burgers. It was quite cold in the hotel and convention center and I’d forgotten my hood and mantle at home (though I had brought my cloak), so Ernst very kindly lent me his for the weekend.

After dinner I did a very cursory wander, saw Ernst again, and realized that Da Team had made plans to go for dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Well, I’d just had dinner, but I wanted the company, so I went with them anyway. I needn’t have worried about two rapid-succession suppers; we only got our food at the Chinese place at about 8:30. On the other hand, there were a lot of fun people around the table and we had a great time.

By the time we got back to the hotel, I was pretty tired and I think I decided to check my email and turn in for the night. On the upside: I’m still enamoured of my little night-light that I now use in all hotel bathrooms so I can shower in dim light but not pitch darkness. On the downside: I was so out of it that I left the shower curtain outside the tub while I was showering and caused kind of a large puddle on the floor. Whoops.

Another problem with the room: all the beds at the Radisson are “sleep number” beds, which means the firmness isn’t set (as it is in most beds) but variable. You can change it by using a little controller attached the to the bed. The problem was I couldn’t figure out how to make the damn thing work. I wound up sleeping on a hard-as-rocks bed and tossing for most of the night.

Woke up around 8:00 on Saturday morning, got dressed in my garb, and went down to the hotel restaurant to see if I could find anyone I knew to have breakfast with. I didn’t, but some very kind people from Barony of the Bridge (Rhode Island) who let me sit with them. For a while, we were the only people in the bar area (which they were using for overflow from the breakfast place), which was kind of fun. I had the breakfast buffet, mostly because the price ($12.95) was about on par with any of the à la carte choices once you factored in tea and juice (neither of which was included) and also because there was a half-hour wait when ordering à la carte. It was really busy.

After breakfast I decided to browse the merchants. The merchant area at Birka is huge, given that it’s one of the two main draws of the event (the other being fighting). I very quickly found Edith and Collin and spent a few hours trailing behind them, saying hi to people I knew, and doing some window-shopping.

Late in the morning, I decided to explore the other part of the event site and stumbled across Baroness Aneleda doing an impromptu teaching circle for “Born on the Listfield” and “Song of the Shield Wall,” so I joined them for a little while. It was fun to do bardic in the middle of the day for once, but after an hour or so I was sneezing so badly that I decided to go back to my room for a while to get away from the cat fur on people’s clothing and give the antihistamines a chance to kick in. Oh, well. At least I had a cat-free place to escape to.

Around 1:15 I was getting hungry for lunch, so I came downstairs to see if I could find anyone who wanted to eat with me. Long story short: it took over an hour to actually get to the restaurant. I spent some time watching John McGuire do some embroidery, found some bardic people, watched Grim do some fencing… stuff. Finally went for lunch with John, Grim, Isabelle, and a woman I’d never met named Natasha. Just as we were finally sitting down, my Saturday night roommate Etain finally reached the hotel and I was able to give her the key to our room. I would have liked to go up with her, but everything was sorta happening at the same time.

I had a big turkey leg for lunch, off the special “Birka” menu. (Note to the hotel: good effort, but turkeys are a new-world animal and didn’t actually exist in medieval Europe. Whoops.) It was quite tasty, and while my normal inclination would have been to pick the sucker up in my hands and gnaw it to kingdom come, I was wearing the only set of garb I’d brought with me and it was dripping with gravy. So I used a knife and fork. Scandalous, I know.

After lunch Grim was kind enough to sit down with me and help me workshop some Middle English texts I was working on translating. It’s just a 4-page sample of a 475-page book of saints lives I want to read through, but some of the words were giving me problems. Sadly, the time we took to read through the four pages proved to me that there’s not gonna be a quick fix for this one. It’ll be a slog all the way through. Alas.

Sometime around 4:00, I figured I’d try to find Ernst. The one thing I was committed to during the day was back-heralding court for the Barony of Stonemarche. Except that I hadn’t seen Ernst since breakfast to make plans with him. Well, funny story… turns out he was doing Stonemarche court right as I was looking for him. Whoops. Sorry to drop the ball, Coach! Hope it went okay anyway!

Given that I had nothing else to do at this point, I browsed the merchants again and made two small impulse purchases, both from Auntie Arwen’s Spices. One was some “salt pearls,” which are little smooth spheres of salt that theoretically season slow-cooking meals (crock pot, pot roast, etc.) more evenly than just sprinkling salt on top. The other was some chocolate-jalapeno fudge. I’m not a huge fan of jalapeno, but apparently the heat opens the taste buds to make the chocolate flavor more intense. Haven’t tried it yet, but I have high hopes.

I poked my head into Royal Court a few times, but figured I really shouldn’t spend much time in a room full of people in cat-fur-covered clothes in close proximity, so I took another break in my room.

And here begins the second time in a day when everything decided to happen at once. See, I decided to try calling Marc and saying hi. I’d tried earlier in the day, but the first time he was pre-coffee, and the second he had people over. But this time — yay! — he was awake, caffeinated, and alone. I asked him to fill me in on what had happened at the Cyberpunk game that had happened that afternoon, and he’d just started telling me when I got a ping from Ernst saying, “Court’s over, meet up in the Mezzanine to do a group photo.” Well, erm, this is awkward. I wrote him back to tell him I was on the phone with Marc, who was still telling me about the game. After about ten minutes, I told him that I’d call him back in a half-hour and rushed down to do the picture.

Of course, as we were waiting for the last few stragglers of Da Team to arrive for the photo, I got a message from Edith telling me that dinner plans were being made and that I should meet them in the lobby in fifteen minutes. There were a few moments of panic where I thought the pictures were gonna take longer than that, but in the end it worked out. I rushed back to my room, sent a fast email to Marc telling him I would only be able to call him later at night (which, I discovered, he never got because he’s less obsessive about his email than I am), and did the world’s fastest change into mundane clothes.

The dinner crew — John McGuire, Edith, Collin, and Jeanne — met up in the lobby and headed over to a nearby pub for dinner. We ordered our meals around 8:40. Drinks showed up pretty soon, but the food did not. We waited… and waited… and waited. The kitchen was apparently well into the woods or exploded or something. Our appetizers never actually arrived. The food only showed up around 9:15, by which point we were all pretty ravenous. It was tasty (baked mac and cheese comfort food for me, accompanied by some hard cider I shared with Edith), but by the time we got back to the hotel, it was almost 10:00.

But, damnit, I really, really wanted to go the bardic, and there was still an hour left. I showed up in my mundanes to ask if I should get changed into “more appropriate” clothing. Lucien assured me I looked fine and promptly roped me into performing, before I’d even put my coat down. Well, twist my rubber arm, why don’cha? I did the story of a prefect who molests kitchen implements thinking they’re St. Anastasia’s maidservants, which went over pretty well. The circle pretty rapidly degenerated into filk, so I wound up doing Hector’s “Pennsic Blues” and my own “Sixteen Shirts“. There were about thirty people when I showed up, and I closed out the circle around 11:15. Yay bardic!

Went up to Ernst’s room long enough to eat a cupcake kindly provided by Etain and watch a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity. The party was hoppin’, but I was pooped and went back to my room shortly after midnight. I did manage to figure out how to get the sleep number controller to work, but I don’t think I set it right, because now it was a little too soft. Sigh. Stupid body and its inability to sleep in strange beds.

Sunday morning I woke up to find Etain was already up and making plans for Da Team to have breakfast downstairs in the lobby. I knew I wanted to be on the road by 10:00 at the latest because I had somewhere to be in Montreal in the mid-afternoon, so we packed up and headed downstairs for 9:00. I had the breakfast buffet again, and again found myself at one of the only occupied tables in the bar area. Still, food was good, company was good, and conversation was good. The bad part is that I only managed to get on the road at 10:30.

The drive back was mostly uneventful except for a moment where I realized the rest area wasn’t well cleared and I was fishtailing into a turn a bit too fast. Still, I am a Montreal driver. I can handle it. I took two brief cat-naps on the way back — I was very tired — but did not stop for lunch. Got into down around 4:00, headed over to the roleplaying game I had scheduled, and finally got home around 8:30. So… tired…

In any event, I found the event was very expensive. I think I spent over $450 for the weekend, and that’s with only $11 of shopping money. The hotel was very expensive — $300 for the two nights, including paid parking and a $10 fee for using my credit card to pay the bill. I spent about $60 for gas and about $90 for meals (six meals, about $15 each). It’s money I didn’t really have, but I really wanted to come. I’ll find it somewhere.

The other thing about Birka is that it’s full of seeing people I don’t get to see that often. But most of those encounters were 15 seconds of saying, “Hi! We should totally catch up later!” and then you never do, because it’s just such a packed schedule. Even without any firm commitments, I found that I didn’t have time to do half the stuff I wanted to.

Also, even though I’d been taking my corticosteroids for several weeks, and even though the hotel is probably as well-ventilated and well-dusted a venue as I could hope for, my allergies and asthma still acted up. It wasn’t as bad as it might have been, but it’s still enough to put a damper on things. At least I had a voice for the evening bardic, which is rare for me at indoor events. Stupid body.

So, final verdict: It was entertaining, but Birka is far from my favorite event. And it’s expensive enough that unless I get a roommate and car buddy, I probably won’t go back. $450 before even entering the merchant area is just too much for one weekend. That’s half my Pennsic budget right there. Oh, well. At least it’s one event I can now cross off my list of “I’ve never been to this one” events. So that’s something, at least.

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