The 18th International AIDS Conference In Vienna (And Associated Events)

Vienna was an interesting place to spend time. My first impressions some years ago, were not favorable, but having spent 10 days there I have changed my mind. I arrived in the early hours of Friday 16th July and left on Saturday 24th. The travel schedule was a bit hectic because, on the 14th (Bastille Day in France), I went to Marseille to be part of the panel examining a PhD.

On the plane from Amsterdam to Marseille, I had a new experience. There was a couple sitting in the first row looking somewhat drunk, the bleary, out-of -focus behaviour that is a real tell-tale. The stewardess confiscated a bottle of whiskey from them about 30 minutes into the journey, explaining that they could not continue drinking. While the cabin crew was serving drinks, the man went to the toilet at the front of the plane. There was suddenly an earsplitting alarm; the women abandoned the trolley, and came flying up the aisle in a panic. I did not see what happened next, but when the man returned to his seat, I heard them tell him they had found a cigarette in the toilet, and he would be arrested on arrival in Marseille. When the plane got to the air bridge six heavily armed gendarmes took him away with them. The announcement was: “Will passengers please remain seated as the police will be boarding to take a passenger off”.

I had always wondered what the smoke alarm sounded like, I now know.

Travelling takes time, even with good connections. I was on planes, in airports, or taxis from 9.30 am to 6 pm. And it was hot and humid – two shirt a day weather. The hotel sulked in an alley two streets away from the harbor. First impressions were of dark wood and hostile receptionists. It had a themes for each floor, level one Japanese, level two ethnic, three French and so on. My room was on the ethnic level and I had shields, masks and faux animal skins.

The examination was probably straight forward. I have to say ‘probably’ because, although most of the thesis was written in English, (it comprised a number of papers published by the candidate with linking commentary), all most all of the defense, including the examiners’ comments, was in French. When I accepted the invitation to do this exam I made it clear that I do not speak French. The candidate passed and the thesis and experience were both most interesting.

The supervisor Jean-Paul Moatti, and I were scheduled to fly on the same flight to Vienna: Air France to Lyon then continue on Austrian airways. Immediately after the exam the panel were invited for lunch in an excellent restaurant. The lunch was exquisite, it comprised six courses, all, except the desert, involved very tasty fish. This was the compensation for doing the exam as there is no fee. Unfortunately we had hardly sat down when Jean-Paul’s phone rang. Air France were calling to say that the Austrian airlines flight to Vienna was cancelled. They, unhelpfully, said we could only travel the next day. This would have been disastrous for me as I was chairing a meeting from 08.30 in Vienna. Jean-Paul spent the next 30 minutes on the phone, talking to his secretary, his travel agent and the airline and trying to make a plan. Eventually he succeeded and we were re-booked on Lufthansa to Vienna, going via Munich. At that point we could relax and enjoy the meal, but we were already on the desert. It was altogether annoying and stressful.

Jean-Paul offered to take me to the airport. He met me at the hotel, while his colleague hovered illegally on a busy road by the harbor. Rushing down the stairs I miss-stepped and somehow pulled a muscle in my calf. We had a tight connection, the plane left Marseilles a little late, and we were feeling mildly panicky. When the bus pulled into the terminal in Vienna we found the gate we were departing from was just a few steps away from where we entered the terminal. It was just as well because I could hardly walk. In the end this plane was late and I did not get to the hotel until the early hours of Friday morning. This is when predicable hotel chains are appreciated. The room in Vienna, at a Courtyard Marriot, was perfect: sterile and predictable. There was a well equipped gym on the top floor, with a television for each machine which meant I could catch up with the news while working out.

There were many lessons from the conference. The thing I found most fascinating, beyond the ‘core business’ of HIV/AIDS, was the range of high tech methods of delivering water for hand washing in the bathrooms. The days of a turning on a tap are long gone, in fact I did not see a single old fashioned tap, it is all levers and innovative ‘water delivery methods’ these days. Three noteworthy ones were the ‘hold out your hand and hope’; ‘tap tap’ and ‘water fountain’. The first is based on a sensor which reacts to a hand being put in the basin and delivers a gush of water. The second, which looked exactly the same, required a sharp tap on the top to start and the same to finish. The final one was quite bizarre, there was a large metal grill with a lever and no discernable outlet for the water. I turned the lever and the water sprang up from the middle of the grill, just like a water fountain.

The food in Austria was mostly heavy and dull. It leans toward the ‘potatoes and meat’ end of the spectrum. At the end of the conference we had an International AIDS Society staff and Governing Council dinner and party at a wonderful location, the restaurant: Österreicher im MAK – which is in the Museum der Angewanten Kunst, (this seems to translate as the Museum of Applied Art, but I am not sure that this is correct, it could also be the Museum of Modern Art). The location was superb: the food, meat with meat!

The party was great fun. Due to the weather it was a moveable feast, we started in the garden and then moved inside as the heavens opened. Three of the events I went to were rained on (one was rained off). The other two were a reception at the Norwegian Ambassador’s home and the Life ball. This last was a great shame as the show had to stop because of the lightning -it was potentially really dangerous. I should very much like to go a proper full Life Ball again. Their website is

I spent the last Saturday in Vienna. I got up late, packed, checked out, and took the metro into the city to visit a museum. I choose the Leopold, an art nouveau museum, although I’m not certain what is ‘nouveau’ about it as most of the artists were painting over 100 years ago. I was particularly taken by the works of Gustav Klimt, the painting ‘Life and Death’ was the one I spent most time in front of, and Egon Schiele. The art was thought-provoking and somewhat bleak. Of course Vienna was the original home of psychoanalysis. I found myself wondering which came first, the gloomy depressed artists or the psycho analysis. Maybe the psychoanalysis led to gloomy artists!

Since getting back I have been going through my books and writing up my trip report. This is over six pages which obviously to long for a letter or a web post. So what were the highlights? Undoubtedly the news of the microbicide trials: this is a female controlled protection against HIV. The research originates from colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, so that was really exciting. There was also much thought about the resource constraints that we face in this field, and of course the proximity to Eastern Europe was important for understanding drug use.

I moderated two sessions and chaired three. One was the rapporteur session on the last afternoon of the conference, just before the closing ceremony. There were two hours allocated for this, with nine people speaking. I briefed my panel very carefully and cut the introductions and interventions down to the minimum. Normally chairs take the opportunity to put their own views, I did not. In the end we finished three minutes ahead of schedule. This was a record and somewhat embarrassing for me. Nonetheless most people were happy with the way we rattled through; and all were informative and impressive. If anyone really wants to see it, it is on the conference website – – but I am not going to give the exact url.

I did two fun things in this session. The youth report-back was last, poor people, this meant they had ample time to get nervous. I introduced their representative by saying: “The fact the youth are the last to report does not mean that they are unimportant. They are very central to the fight against AIDS. We looked at a Kaplan-Meyer curve and decided they were the people most likely to be still alive at the end of the session.”

The hall is so big that the session is broadcast to big screens at various locations in the room. At the very end I looked at the camera and said: “During the World Cup in South Africa I never had the opportunity to see myself on the screen and wave madly, I am going to do it now.”

And I did, and some people understood what I meant.

“Sex and Stravinsky” by Barbara Trapido, Bloomsbury Publishing London 2010, 320 pages.

Trapido is not to everyone’s taste, I really enjoyed “Frankie and Stankie” her growing up novel set in Durban in the 1950s and 60s. The latest book revisits this grant ground. The main characters are Josh, who grew up in Durban, whose parents were engaged in anti-apartheid activities and flee the country. He travels to Oxford where he meets and marries Caroline a statuesque Australian Amazon. This is the story of their life from the time they meet, to about 20 years later set in Oxford and Durban. The other characters are Jack coloured boy adopted by Josh’s parents. He is sent to a school in Swaziland which has got to be Waterford. Also involved in the story are Harriet, Josh’s first love; her husband Herman; the two daughters’ and Caroline’s truly ghastly mother. The plot is fun, the settings are well observed and if you like richly comical beautifully told stories that feature Durban this is excellent. Thinking about it I really appreciate the few characters and the way the story is woven around each of them.