Thursday, 1 December 2005

Nick in Vienna 2

The conference is over, it's about 11pm, and I'm exhausted. Admittedly, that's as much from sightseeing today as conferring yesterday and Monday, but the point stands: I'm blogging instead of sleeping.

On the first afternoon that I was here, before my luggage arrived, I went out with Russel and his friend Rahul to find a palace. At first this sounded like an extraordinary proposition, and in the end we didn't find the palace, but that was only because we walked off in exactly the wrong direction. In actuality, what's almost as extraordinary as taking a stroll to see a palace is the fact that we didn't see a palace. You can hardly throw a stone in Vienna without hitting either a palace or a cathedral or other monument of some appropriate magnificence.
Nevertheless, we didn't find our palace, but we did happen upon Mariahilferstra├če (check my German skills!), one of the main shopping districts. I took the opportunity to buy a good warm jacket. Actually, what I'd really like is one of those long slim black wool overcoats since I reckon they look incredibly stylin', but I can't justify the cost :( (As it is, I'm making do without gloves or hat, since I wouldn't use either in Rockhampton. I should have just bought some the first day though, my hands and ears have never been so cold!)

On Sunday, I visited a couple of markets (the stalls all blended into a homogenous blur after a little while) at which I discovered the joy of warm roast chestnuts huddled under the dubious shelter of a stall with snow falling all around. This was the first time I'd been in falling snow, and I wandered around in delighted fascination.
The architecture of Vienna is amazing. Around every corner is a building more breath-taking than the last. Shops compete with one another for grandeur, but pale in comparison to the spectacular public works of ages gone by. The view of the gothic steeples of a church soaring over a park's snow-dusted treetops is like something out of a fairytale.
Ruhul, Xin, and I found the palace we'd looked for the previous day. The Sch├Âenbrunn Palace was (most recently) the summer home of Emperor Franz Joseph, who died there in 1916. Since then it's become a heritage building and is open to the public. We explored the palace itself, which housed the furniture and items used by the imperial family, and the grounds around it. I've decided I want a palace, myself.

For the next couple of days, with one exception, I was flat out attending, facilitating, and presenting at the conference. With all due respect to the amount of work put in by everone, the conference was a bit of a mess. I spent most of Monday sorting out computer problems in between making sure rooms were opened and closed (and locked). Tuesday was blessedly smoother, but I had my presentation to worry about that day.
The exception was Tuesday night, the night of the conference dinner. I had requested funding to go to the conference dinner (€45, $70AUD, yikes : ), expecting not to enjoy it that much but knowing I should make the effort to make contacts and be a good researcher. I was expecting something similar to every other conference dinner I'd been to: big banquet hall, round tables with crisp white tablecloths, polished silverware, and sparkling glass. You know how it is. An evening of dull speeches and polite conversation.
When at first we pulled up in front of a massive sandstone building, I was impressed if still resigned. When we filed into a small door in the side of the building, up a winding flight of stairs, and into a low, cramped, tavern, I was surprised and disappointed. The food was help-yourself country style fare. The tavern benches were awkwardly cramped. I paid how much for this? But my initial misgivings were misplaced. This small tavern with no windows, a low arched ceiling and walls made from rough stone blocks blackened with age hosted the absolute best "formal" dinner I've ever been to.
I think the unlimited bar tab helped :D There was singing, and a fellow playing an accordian all night, and dancing from waltz to tango to greek and cossack line dancing, toasts in a dozen different languages. It was noisy, raucous, and great fun. An older bloke from Australia and I taught an impromptu choir "Waltzing Matilda" and performed for the guests of honour. Other delegates from other countries sang their own songs. I became an honourary Iranian for the purposes of singing... er, I can't quite remember what I was singing. But it was good.

I should stop writing now to make sure I can pay for the internet cost with the change I have left. I need to get some more money tomorrow morning...

Best regards,

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