Or, What I Did on my Summer Not-Actually-Vacation
I’m about to attempt something I do only very rarely: actually blog about events in my life. See, I don’t usually bother because my life isn’t very interesting, but let me lay two fun and exciting facts on you:
1) I am the site manager for TheBody.com, a massive online HIV/AIDS resource; and,
2) Every two years, there’s an International AIDS Conference held somewhere different.
I am, generally speaking, not much of a traveler. My basic philosophy tends towards, “But all my stuff is here, so why would I want to go there?” Which I think is a valid life choice, though it baffles basically everyone else. Bah. But I still don’t exactly look gift-horses in the mouth, so when it was announced that the XVIII International AIDS conference (aka AIDS 2010) was going to be held in Vienna, Austria, and that we would be sending a team to cover it, and I was asked if I would like to be part of that team…?
So basically, what I’m saying is that last week I spent nine days in Vienna.1 And it was awesome. So let me dig back, back, baaaaaack into my memory, roughly two weeks ago…
It began on my birthday, with a string of good birthday luck. My awesome coworkers Olivia and Myles and I met at JFK airport, where we paused to ask someone where to check in. The gentleman we asked said there was a long line, but offered to take care of us himself, and reassigned our seats so we were on aisles, next to empty seats. And then the baggage guy grabbed us first out of a small mob, and then they opened a new security line right as we walked past, moving us up to the front. Birthday magic! The flight left early afternoon and continued through evening, a very short night, and deposited us in Vienna the next morning.Despite general exhaustion, we managed to find our way through the Vienna subway to our hotels. In order to stave off jetlag, we decided not to immediately fall into bed2 and instead dropped off our luggage and went out with two goals: phones, and food. Phones because ours didn’t work internationally, and food because it had been a long flight with no vegetarian options.
The phone thing. That was fun. We wandered the streets on a tip from the hotel desk lady, looking for what we thought was an electronics shop and didn’t learn for four days was actually a subway station, whoops. (I should probably note at this point that I speak the most German out of anyone in our group, and the only thing I know how to say is, “I don’t speak German, can you speak English?”) But after a fair amount of wandering, we found a store helpfully labeled “Call Shop,” run by an Austrian gentleman who spoke about as much English as I do German. So you can imagine the fun hijinks as we tried to ask for the cheapest phones he had, with pay-as-you-go contracts. And then…
Oh man, the food. Lunch was just spaghetti with tomato and basil, since it was the only thing I was pretty sure was vegetarian on the menu. And I swear, it was the AWESOMEST SPAGHETTI EVER. No, really. REALLY.
So, phones, language barriers, food, and then scooting across town to meet the last member of our party, Mark. Fun thing about working for a website: you don’t always actually know everyone you work with in person. Mark S. King has been blogging for us for ages, and this was the first time we’d met him face to face. He was pretty much exactly what you’d expect from watching his videos (which I highly recommend). End day one. Day two was what’s known as the MSM Forum,3 and the beginning of our coverage.
I didn’t do much for that; everyone else had facets to cover, but as site manager, my job was more techy than anything else. The basic plan was for me to attend panels of the conference that particularly interested me, but other than that, basically to either chill in the media center, prepping our coverage and getting it ready to go, and tracking the conference online; or to plug our recording equipment into the press conference soundboard and record sessions there, so that the people writing coverage were freed up to go to panels that interested them. So (aside from a trip back to the call shop to purchase more minutes for our phones, and figure out how to install them, with the same gentleman as the previous day) my day was pretty chill. Instead of detailing my methods for tracking the #AIDS2010 hashtag on twitter, I’ll tell you this: Vienna’s subway isn’t like New York’s subway.
I suspect we were all a little nervous about the trip, since apparently transportation had been a bit of an issue two years ago for the conference in Mexico City. But Vienna’s public transit, it turns out, is great, and easily comprehensible to a non-German speaker, or at least one who’s used to the complex mess that is New York’s MTA.4 It was extremely easy to navigate, with lovely LED signs on every platform that let you know how long it would be until the next train, never more than 6 minutes.5 And it was clean! It was almost as if the people of Vienna didn’t treat the track and platform as a series of large trashcans. You could walk the length of the platform without your shoe landing in something suspiciously sticky! I was pretty amazed, though what really marked me as a tourist was the subway doors. In New York, they open automatically. In Vienna, they don’t; you have to either press the button or jerk the handle. I kept forgetting to do that and would stand there, baffled, until someone reached around me to open them. Whoops.
Oh, and did I mention that their subways seem to run on the trust system? That was maybe the strangest difference of all. You pay for your ticket (one trip, day pass, week pass, whatever) and get it punched by a machine so it’s stamped with the date/time you started using it. Then you can get on and off without having to swipe it or show it to anyone or anything, and keep using it for however long it’s valid. There are no turnstyles or anything; you can just walk onto the platform and they apparently just trust that you’ve paid. (Well, apparently there are occasional spot-checks to see that everyone in the subway has a ticket, and steep fines for anyone who doesn’t, but even so, my mind is somewhat blown.)
Okay, so. The conference finally got into swing the third day we were there, with the official opening session, keynote speaker Bill Clinton. I was, somehow, the only person from our group who was interested in going. That also blew my mind because it was Bill Clinton, you guys, he’s kind of a big deal! Or at least he’s a really engaging, funny speaker. I was blown away, though some of that was certainly jetlag. He said lots of smart, interesting things and generally oozed charm in exactly the way you’d expect him to. Nothing he said was controversial, and he went out of his way to defend Obama’s HIV/AIDS policies.6 It was interesting, and I’m glad I made the trip for that alone. (Here: have my official coverage of the thing.)
I wish I could tell you about the awesome activities and sights and sounds over the next few days, but honestly, it’s all kind of a blur. We did go out for delicious food almost every night, but were also working incredibly long days. I only went to a handful of actual sessions: a workshop on how AIDS organizations can best work with the media,7 a really fascinating panel discussion about sex workers and HIV, and a really dreadful panel I won’t get into because it seems polite (but which was the only thing about the conference itself I didn’t enjoy). Conference food, of course, was mediocre. But the people were great. (I also went to a tweet-up of people who were posting about/following the conference on Twitter to exchange thoughts on new media and HIV, which was pretty directly up my alley.)And as I said, there were the people we’ve worked with for ages but haven’t necessarily met face to face. Mark, whose daily videos were great; River Huston, a blogger who was there to perform and who we had dinner with; Ben Young, a doctor who helps train people in HIV care across the world,8 and many, many others.
There was also the human rights rally, culminating with a concert by Annie Lennox. If you’ve ever read this blog before (or looked at the category list to the right) it shouldn’t come as a shock to hear that I’m a bleeding-heart progressive lefty liberal type. What blew me away about the human rights rally in specific and the conference in general was this: being surrounded by about 20,000 other people who care like I care. The rally had people from dozens of different organizations, representing, in no particular order, anti-homophobia, anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-ableism, anti-ageism, feminism, sex workers’ rights, drug users’ rights, etc etc etc. Hey, guess what, it turns out there’s a lot of intersectionality around HIV, because HIV hits so many communities that are already lacking in privilege. If you’re fighting an *ism, there’s a pretty good chance HIV affects your cause.
More food I experienced: goat cheese patties, goat cheese baked into fresh pastries, goat cheese and spinach tarts; cucumber salad, pumpkin spice salad, and baked goat cheese salad.9 Not to mention the amazing gelato and pastries. Even the hotel food was delicious. Heck, even the airline bread (the only thing I could eat on the flights) was fresh and yummy. I’m not much for food. In fact, as a general rule, if I could photosynthesize instead of eat, that would be kind of awesome. But I have to say, damn, there was a lot of good food on that trip.
Time passed really strangely while we were there. Each individual day was really, really long: up at 7 AM, not back in the hotel room until midnight, and more work until 2, if the hotel’s wireless was functioning. Individual days were lonnnnnng. And yet, when the conference ended and we were packing up, it seemed like no time had passed at all. It was kind of surreal, actually, and felt like leaving the day after we arrived, and once back in New York, it was only the jetlag exhaustion and all the chocolate I brought back that made me sure I’d been anywhere at all.10
The flight home had none of the smoothness of our trip there. I’m pretty sure all 20,000 conference attendees were leaving within the same four-hour frame or so, so the Vienna airport was a freaking madhouse with an enormous mob of people we had to wade through for an hour before getting to the actual line. We were rushed through, frazzled and harried, while someone demanded to see our printed itineraries and wouldn’t let anyone on the plane without one.11 Oh, and my rolling suitcase decided not to roll, which made getting from JFK back to my apartment by public transit (in 100 degree weather, on zero hours of sleep) super duper fun.
- Don’t think too hard about that math. ↩
- Also, our hotels weren’t ready for us yet. ↩
- Full title: Global Forum on Men Who Have Sex With Men and HIV. ↩
- Conversations usually go like this: “I waited at the stop for 25 minutes before a conductor for another line said the train wouldn’t come. I had to hop the wrong line and go four stops downtown to catch another train uptown and then a bus across to where I wanted to go. Took me three hours… Still the best damn public transportation in the world.” ↩
- Some New York platforms have those, too. The difference is that Vienna’s were accurate. ↩
- I’m not sure how I feel about those, frankly, but that’s an entry for another time, or for my actual job… ↩
- Not aimed at me, technically a media person, but interesting nonetheless. ↩
- You should read this article he helped with, and then you should write to the Ukranian government. Just sayin’. ↩
- Psh, and people said I wouldn’t be able to find anything vegetarian… Everyone else seemed quite taken with the wienerschnitzel. ↩
- And also that Andy Pettitte was injured while I was out of the country. I get back and he’s on the DL. BOO. ↩
- Not, keep in mind, our boarding passes; she didn’t care about those. Did you print out an email confirmation when you bought your ticket? No? Then NO FLIGHT FOR YOU! Whaaaaaat. ↩