Saturday, July 11, 2009

BAGECO and my night at the castle

Jennifer I've covered now the FEMS conference in Göteborg, but I should also mention the conference that I went to June 15-20 in Uppsala. The name of the conference was BAGECO, which stands for Bacterial Genetics and Ecology. This conference was quite a bit smaller than FEMS, maybe 400 people or so, and geared more specifically toward my interests than was FEMS (which included lots of clinical and industrial stuff), and I met some potential future collaborators. Post-doc E. from my department also attended, and we had a good time talking at lunch and during the breaks.

BAGECO was quite rigorous, time-wise (starting at 08:00, lasting until 19:00, fortunately only a single bus ride away), but it was also quite plush. It included an opening reception with food drinks, two lavish coffee breaks per day, lunch every day that was quite good, and more drinks on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, which was probably intended as incentive for people to stick around for the poster sessions (a strategy that worked quite well, and perhaps had the added bonus of making people a little bolder about approaching and talking to strangers).

The highlight of the conference, though, was the official dinner on the evening of June 17. At 500 SEK, it wasn't exactly cheap (my department paid), but it was worth every öre. The dinner was held in the big hall at Uppsala's castle, and no expenses were spared. There was a pre-dinner glass of sparkling wine, and a modern troubadour with a guitar singing to us (including "Sweet Home Alabama!"). Empty wine glasses were quickly refilled, and the food included smoked salmon, lobster mousse, tuna ceviche, large shrimp with mustard sauce, duck breast, Parma ham... "I want to try a little of everything," I said to the handsome young waiter who had been assigned to carry my plate. "I like the shrimp best," he said. "Then I'll have a couple shrimp," I said. (I hate shrimp.) (But he was right, they were delicious.)

My dinner companions were newlyweds F. and R., who were treating this conference as part of their all-around-Europe honeymoon. F. is Italian, a young professor now in Australia, and R. is American. It was fun to talk to a stranger American, and the older British professor to my left, C., also had fun goading all three of us about being "colonists". R. and I nattered on about Barack Obama; F. and I, who do similar sort of work, discovered a mutual affection for the movie "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"; C. brought me a plate of cheese and crackers after dinner. Our talk ground to a halt around 10pm as the troubadour turned into a DJ, and the disco started up mere meters from our table. (I'm very glad to be able to say that I have now seen people dancing to Abba in a Swedish castle, but it's hard to talk over.)

As I wandered out of the dining hall, intending to head home, I ran into M., another postdoc, whom I had met at the poster session. She insisted that I at least see the famous portrait of Queen Kristina (who abdicated from this very castle in 1654) before leaving. M. is Swedish, but she works in Norway, where she's happy to be so close to nature and outdoor pursuits; she dreams of going to work in Antarctica. We sat in a candlelit nook, with a view of the city, and talked about Antarctica, and kelp forests, and lakes, and bacterial ecology. Around midnight we looked outside at the constant twilight, and I mentioned how difficult it was sometimes for me to get to sleep when it never gets dark. "I grew up with it like this, and it didn't bother me at all when I was young," said M., "but as I get older, I find that all the daylight makes me nervous and unsettled." We chatted until almost 2am, well past the time that the last bus had left, and I ended up calling a taxi for a ride home.

What a great evening; Romantic with a capital R. Of course it's true that I get fascinating conversation and a handsome young man bringing me delicious food all the time at home, and I like my home very much, but it isn't a castle, now, is it?

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