My trip to the Austria conference didn’t start out that well with the cancellation of the local train from Sileby to Leicester. Great. Thankfully Mrs Llama stepped up and gave me a lift into Leicester, from where the journey on to London went fairly well. Made the mistake of hopping on the uber-expensive, if uber-shiny, Heathrow Express without the right ticket so ended up paying full whack for the rapid journey. I’ll know that for another time! Checked in at the airport, and hung around for the best part of three hours while I waited for my Austrian airlines flight. I don’t like flying much, and haven’t flown in around 6-7 years, so wasn’t looking forward to this bit. As it was the flight was pretty straight-forward and landed well ahead of schedule. Enjoyed the mid-flight snack choice of salt or sweet too. Within 15 minutes of landing though I’d reclaimed by bags, passed through immigration control and was waiting for the CAT (city airport train) to the heart of Vienna. This double-decker train was like the Heathrow Express…only sleeker, more comfortable and a lot cheaper. Also, the ticket collector was…very easy on the eyes too.
After that it was a case of navigating the Vienna U-Bahn to Keplerplatz and walking the 15 minutes to my hotel. As it would turn out, I should have gotten off a stop earlier…but that was something I wouldn’t discover until tomorrow. The hotel (Schani Wien) was…well, let’s make no bones about it, in the middle of a major construction area. Inside thought it was nice and modern, clean and above all cool. Vienna being already somewhere around 28C even in the early evening. Sadly my room seemed to lack pillows or sheets (which the hotel fell over themselves to fix, wonderful staff) and any tea making facilities (not a hotel feature sadly). At least the hotel staff were…also easy on the eye, and I began to formulate an idea that all Austria’s service sector was populated entirely by lovely ladies. Better not tell Mrs Llama that bit ;) Too shattered to search for dinner, and with no shops seemingly near by I slumped in front of the TV and fell asleep fairly early.
After being awake long before 6am (and the start of building work) I breakfasted, showered and headed out to walk into Vienna, to explore. The road I’d chosen seemed to be filled with embassies and people zipping past on (non-motorised) scooters. I decided I’d like a scooter and kept my eyes open for a shop selling them. I also visited the Liberation Monument, which looked like something that would be happier in the middle of Moscow. Got asked for directions (in English) by another set of visitors – this seems to be a regular thing for me when I travel anywhere, I must look like I know what I’m doing. However, by late morning, lightly broiled in sun despite my hat I found my way to the Technische Universität Wien
where the pre-conference day was being held. And there I queued for 20 minutes in a boiling corridor, before discovering the joys of the air conditioned lecture theater.
Being an international conference it’s safe to say I knew no one here, and was pretty much invisible and anonymous. I’ll write up the conference itself elsewhere, although the professor who asked a question at the end of the keynote…by presenting 3 confusing slides himself has to be mentioned as the standout weird moment of the day. No lunch seemed to be in appearance (odd) so I assumed it was due tot he conference starting at noon and going through to 7.30pm. I actually skipped out the Evangelical Church arranged debate on Holy War at 6pm to walk home via a different back street route, admiring the rather artistic graffiti in the deeply soporific heat.
Back in the hotel I was pleased to shower, change and crash out for a bit before getting a text from my supervisor to let me know he’d arrived. I’d rather hoped we might go somewhere for dinner, but instead he wanted to go to the conference reception – so I hoped on the U-Bahn and went to see what that was like. Food (of a kind) was served, although there’s only so much black bread with different varieties of cream cheese I can eat. Amused my supervisor by an in depth discussion of Eurovision (he was surprised I wasn’t gay or a woman, as he assumed this is the normal fan demographic) and met one rather intense US academic. The reception rather fell apart around 9.30pm, and seeing no hope of dinner I hoped on the U-Bahn…and promptly walked 20 minutes in the wrong direction when I got out. My hotel was actually only 5 minutes walk from the Hauptbahnhof stop…but it was gone 11pm when I got in for a dinner of a packet of nuts and few rice cakes I’d bought earlier. To say I was getting a bit peckish after two days without a decent meal, would be an under statement.
Made full use of the breakfast at the hotel as I enjoyed a 3 course breakfast (fruit, continental meats/breads/cheeses, and cake to follow) and more importantly worked out where the tea was. I should highlight that the bread here was especially varied and simply incredible, and I say that as someone who bakes a lot himself. As the 9am conference session wasn’t really my area I hoped on the U-Bahn to the Landstraße stop, which is where the CAT departs from. Having observed the station included a check-in for the airlines, I set off to walk back across the city starting off in Stadtpark.
Having observed many statues, ducks and Asian tourists I wandered into the old city to discover a number of crucial things. Firstly…it was very quiet on the approaching streets and many shops were shut. Secondly, there are fountains or statues on nearly every corner of Vienna. And thirdly…there appeared to be a long parade of priests, soldiers, people in historic costumes or their Sunday best. Then I remembered that the conference had mentioned that there was a bank/public holiday over the conference…which rather curtailed a lot of my shopping plans. I later discovered that this was an Ascension Day parade/holiday. Got asked for directions again.
After this unexpected encounter I headed off the conference where my stream was kicking off. A good day capped with an excellent session on open education, and finally having a normal conversation with a French student based at Glasgow. No lunch again, which seemed to be a recurring feature of the conference. Additionally, had rather hoped that my supervisor might take me out for dinner somewhere, but he had disappeared at the end of the day…and after handing around for 15 minutes decided I may as well go home. I made the rather delightful discovery that the Hauptbahnhof station complex included a food court (on top of the Spar shop I’d been relying on for snacks and drinks). And in my best halting German and liberal English managed to secure a rather tasty Pad Thai for dinner, which I smuggled back in the hotel. They were probably fine with it, but I didn’t want to make it too obvious! The food was…delicious beyond compare (but then, I would have eaten one of the horse statues I’d seen earlier in the day by now).
Supervisor texted me around 9.30pm to ask where I was, and when I informed him my hotel…only silence returned. I’d rather hoped he might have invited me back into town to meet up, but no. So a good book and Netflixs it was again.
Now an accomplished visitor I rose late, breakfasted well (assuming the no-lunch trope) would reoccur today. Spent the first few hours wandering around the Belvedere Schloss and gardens. Many, many statues – and refreshingly not muted by Victorian puritanism like they would be in the UK (to wit, boobs and bums a plenty). The temperature today was a chilly 27C (rather than 30 of the day before) so I wasn’t melting as much as normal, although reaching the conference to cool down wasn’t such a bad thing. Interesting papers although again no lunch appeared (bar a few slices of dry bread/cake) so I went exploring in another direction over lunch – and got asked for directions for the third time!
Once again my supervisor didn’t seem inclined to arrange a dinner trip (his ability to disappear when I was looking/waiting for him borders on superhuman), so I went back to the food court and ordered a chicken curry and pakora selection. Nice, although not as good as the Thai (and they did rather…erm…go through me a bit). Around 8pm I got a notification of a Whatsapp voice message from my supervisor, and for a moment thought “Damn, he wants to meet for dinner…and I’ve already eaten”. But no, he’d rung me instead of his Wife saying he was “Just going out”. So much for him being my guide to the night life of Vienna! And as he flies back tomorrow that’s my last chance. Bit po’ed by it to be honest.
Body clock seems to be set to -1GMT for some reason I know not, so awake at 5am again. Possibly due to last night’s Indian not really agreeing with me too much. Breakfasted and then skipped the opening session of the day to run through my talk a few times. Seems to run okay, although I remain borderline terrified of being mauled in the questions. Outside it was a Siberian 30C and cloudless, but decided I really ought to make an effort to dress a little more smart-casual, so put on a collared dark-blue shirt and light cotton trousers. With the ever present sandals (which by now had begun to wear huge painful blisters on my big toes). As there wasn’t a conference session of interest until 2pm I went walking via U-Bahn jaunt to Friedensbruke on the north of the city centre, as it was an area I’d not been to yet. Then took a long slow walk back to the centre of Wein. Along the way went through another park, nicely cut into groves and fields and decorated with two Brobdingnagian ancient German flak towers (Gefechtsturm Augarten
) and a few Shaolin monks.
The conference wore on, and my nerves were not helped by three academics having what can be best described as a Marxist willy waggling session that went on far too long. Didn’t help my nerves, but in the end my paper went well – helped by meeting and chatting to a few other presenters just beforehand. Despite my plan to attend I blew off the final papers and went to sit outside the orate Karlskirche for beer with the delightful Greg, Tim and Rachel – making the stunning discovery that the Littlest Hobo is Canada’s proudest televisual export! Two biers later I jumped on U-Bahn for home, pausing only to order more Mai-Tahi for tea with surprising confidence in my halting Deutsch. For unknown reasons I fell asleep after that, although then ended up awake later in the night for hours. Tomorrow I’m supposed to go on the conference seminar boat…but I’m beginning to feel I want to end my conference on a high and have last relaxing day in Vienna to myself.
Oh, no lunch again and no one asked me for directions. Finally.
In the end I blew off the boat trip, feeling slightly guilty that I was missing a treat – but had concluded that I was shattered from not too much sleep, and the prospect of another day of seminars and polite networking was going to be beyond me. Instead, and as is my regular Sunday custom I went for a long walk, heading towards the antenna building I had seen every day I came out oft he hotel, and then towards what looked like a very recent skyscraper. Felt like the hottest day of the week so far, despite the appearance for the first time of a few clouds. Found another park, various weird spires and then ended up crossed the the Danube just beyond where I would have caught the boat. There were some massive sister ships (rather raising the thought in my mind about all those high sounding Marxists seduced into bourgeois comfort as I schlepped across the city in sandals). Ended up at Kaisermühlen-VIC next to the recently opened tallest building in Austria that I’d been heading towards all day. At this point I decided having been walking for almost 3 hrs (7-8miles) in my rapidly disintegrating sandals that it was time to hop of the U-Bahn for hotel and lunch (salad and falalfal).
Having dozed the afternoon away set off around 4pm to find this big wheel that my friend Jane had been nagging me to go see, so one U-Bahn hop later I was at the Praterstern stop. Apparently it appears in The Third Man. Not sure I’ve seen the film, but it was impressive – and turned out to be right next to the park I walked through in the morning. Declined a ride for reasons of cost and the ever present baking sun (“Yes, please put me in a slowly moving glass cartridge and roast me alive”) and explored the massive amusement park next to it. Some people love amusement parks – I find they’re hellish, expensive, tawdry and above all horrifically proletarian experiences – so while it was amusing to walk around, 20 minutes of that left my senses ringing. This might also have been due to the continued appearance of young ladies in “summery” outfits – taking picture of the attractions without seeming to be snapping them proved…tricky so I gave up and walked the 4-5 miles across a splendidly quiet city centre home.
Dined (salad again, with a tuna sandwich), showered and then more or less fell asleep on my bed around 7.30pm, tired out by a combination of walking, heat and conferences. Managed to wake myself before 10pm when Mrs Llama sent me an email from Glasgow, but all she got was a very minor reply, as my brain wasn’t exactly functioning that well through a combination of physical and mental fatigue.
Unsurprisingly I was awake early, having slept the sleep of the dead through to about 5am. Managed to resist getting up until the builders (back from their bank holiday break) started up around 6am again. Did the packing that I’d planned to do the previous before the arms of Morpheus claimed me, nd then fretted over packing my jumper and raincoat (having heard that Leicestershire is due to be soaked roundabout the time I arrive home). In the end packed it to avoid carrying across the city on a day forecast to hit 31C. Breakfasted for the last time in the hotel, vacillated over cake for one last time, and then went and relaxed in my room watching the rolling weather forecast and um-pah band channel until 9am. The mid did try to come and clean my room as I got out of the shower but I managed to stop her coming in before she received an unexpected unveiling!
Checkout and travel across the U-Bahn was uneventful, although I smiled as I passed through stations like Stadtpark that 7 days ago had been names but were now places in my head. Checked in via my phone at the CAT station which seemed a damned convenient thing to do, especially as I was able to drop off my suitcase at this point rather than at the airport. Rode the upstairs of the CAT, accompanied by a lovely Kiwi Family, who’s little girl seemed to think she was in Tokyo and had to be repeatedly corrected by her mum. Passed through security at the airport and mooched around the shops for a bit, then rode the travelators, then sat down and updated this blog.
The flight back was less fun than the flight out, in part because I was heading back to Grey Britain, but also because we stacked over Heathrow for ages in the clouds – which gave me no end of pressure pain in my ears (and as I discovered has slightly f*cked my inner ear balance for a few days afterwards). But other than that my journey back to Sileby by public transport was fine. Since Mrs Llama was on a business trip to Glasgow I walked the last mile from the station home for an evening of further peace and solitude.
So was it worth it? Yes for Vienna, fabulous place and people. Probably yes for the conference, despite the rough edges to the human parts of its organisation. Anyway, here’s my Good, Bad and Ugly of the trip.
- Vienna’s public transport system. The U-Bhan was a delight, inexpensive and effective way to get around the city. When I want walking.
- Sitting drinking Austrian beer with new international friends and colleagues in the sun in front of a magnificent building
- The sweet majesty of the moment I discovered the food court at my nearby station
- Also the blessed Spar shop such fed, clothed and composed my smooth jazz throughout the visit
- The hotel (name), especially the wonderful staff, the comfy bed resplendent breakfasts and flawless WiFi. Also having a/c was a smart move, is have melted.
- The weather, set Lord a mercy all that sun
- Vienna itself. Utter joy of a place to visit. Cf. Austria.
- All the walking I got in and the sights, sites and sounds of the city
- Meeting Justine, Wolfgang, Grey, Rachel & Tim
- Flying Austrian Airlines. Less terrifying than Iberia
- Giving my first international paper in nearly a decade in a new field to a room stacked with proper academics and not making a total fool of myself. Nor being savaged for my weak knowledge of Marx.
- The expensive fun of riding the Heathrow Express
- That I didn’t use more of my basic German than I did
- The lack of chairs at the conference and in my room. I miss sitting
- My supervisor largely ignoring me outside of the conference (no change there then). So much for my anticipated visits to the restaurants and beer cellars of Vienna
- Nearly starving to death after 48hrs. Well, near enough
- That builder and his hammer at 6am on that first morning.
- Not realising the Heathrow Express was an (expensive) add on travel cost
- Flying, flight in general. Take off. Painfully stacking over Heathrow also.
- The almost near total lack of food at the conference and perfunctory liquid refreshments.
- Lack of inclusive networking and feeling like an outsider for 70% of the conference
- Me, sweating in the 30 degree heat. Wasser, wo ist mine wasser?
- The state of my feet from all the walking (close to 25-30 miles per the week) in cheap sandals.