The day has finally arrived. I’m off to the castle. It’s a little bit exciting and a whole lot scary.
Tim asks ‘are you excited?’
‘I actually don’t know if I can do this’
‘Of course you can’, he said. ‘You’ve got this’.
I head downstairs for breakfast and try to identify other conference participants. WhatsApp is pinging away – people still arriving, COVID tests to organise, where is Starbucks at Berlin airport, who’s in the hotel restaurant for breakfast, anyone want to go for a walk before we catch the bus?
I don’t respond to any of them, even though I was having breakfast in the hotel restaurant at the time and then heading out for a walk before the long bus trip. I am full of anxiety.
One of the things that amazes me about being in Europe is that you can be on a bus driving through Germany and next minute you’re in Poland. No flashy signs, no big announcements … just a whole different country. There are bigger signs saying ‘Welcome to New South Wales’ than there are announcing ‘You’re now in Poland’. The language changed on the town names and that was the only indication I had that we weren’t in Germany anymore.
After a five hour bus ride we arrive at the castle.
We arrived around 5pm, were shown to our (shared) rooms and told to meet in the Knights’ Hall in ten minutes. My roomies (Kim and Claudia) and I chose beds, found a space for our bags, checked out the (huge) bathroom and headed back downstairs.
Claus, one of the conference directors, addressed us and said some pretty important things:
- ‘I gotta go’ – if anything became too much, we just had to say those three words and leave the session. No explanations, no judgement, no feeling bad about leaving.
- ‘Love of missing out’ – it’s much more usual to talk about a fear of missing out (more commonly known as FOMO), but in this instance there was so much going on we couldn’t do it all. We were encouraged to be comfortable knowing we would miss some things.
- ‘It is now 6:14. In 9 minutes you will be back here wearing shoes suited for outside and something to keep you warm […] It is now 6:42, and we are precisely on time’. Things would happen at precisely the right time.
There were elements of ceremony and ritual built into each experience. On that first evening when we had something warm on and shoes suited to the outside, we went through the courtyard, past one of the spirits who told us to be silent, through another door that felt more like a portal, to stand silently in a semi-circle in the forest, just outside the castle walls. It was a powerful moment – standing silently with a group of stangers, listening to the beat of a drum, the darkness closing in around us.
The power of shared moments, combined with ritual and ceremony, continued across the next four days.
This ‘conference’, on experience design – attended by folk singers, magicians, escape room designers, CEOs, marketers, immersive theatre directors, actors, artists, experience designers, economists, food scenographers, lawyers, visual artists, academics, composers – was unlike anything I’d been to before. This one walked the talk. We didn’t learn ‘about’ experience design – we ‘experienced’ experience design.
We had the castle complex to ourselves, which meant we could go anywhere – from the torture chamber to the tower – and were free to explore the passages behind any number of bookshelves in the dining room and the library. We wore black robes (much like academic gowns), were sorted into houses according to the colour of the ribbon on our lanyard (no sorting hat!) and had house captains who were our ‘go-to’ people. I was in the purple house; Divine and Katya were my house captains. Spirits slipped amongst us whispering clues to puzzles or reminded us that there was fire twirling in the courtyard later that evening, or an event happening in the tavern. A team of chefs, fermenters and foragers had spent a month in the castle before our arrival sourcing and creating ingredients for all our meals. No meat products and no alcohol were allowed. Photographers, videographers, and visual artists roamed the castle capturing the experience in a variety of ways. Teams of others laid down clues to puzzles, treasure maps, potions, wisdom cards to be collected, reminders to check in with others, reflective tasks to complete. It was immersive, challenging, at times confronting, and I loved every minute of it.
The library was designated as a silent place to eat – no eye contact, no talking. On the third night it was also designated cutlery free. Acelyna made it look so elegant but with what was on the menu that night (noodles) I wasn’t about to try it. Eating in the dining room, on the other hand, was social and over the four days was the place for many rich and diverse conversations.
Each morning I’d get up early, trying not to wake my roommates, grab my camera and wander around the castle. The mornings were cool and crisp and it was a lovely way to start the day. I often felt like I had the whole place to myself.
If you get the opportunity to spend a week in a castle in Poland, I can highly recommend it.