France: The Conference Wine Conundrum

The stunning medieval cathedral in the sleepy, quiet city of Albi in southern France. For more photos see my Instagram @travels_of_bri

I am a current PhD researcher, and so on a semi-regular basis I am expected to be some sort of functioning adult (not fueled entirely by caffeine) and to present my research at various conferences around the world. While this is a fabulous excuse to travel more, it does involve nearly twice the amount of effort that vacationing or backpacking alone does. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had to program a graph in an airport lounge trying to keep hold of your bag with one hand, wildly waving your phone around for signal in the other, with 3% battery remaining on your laptop and a chorus of screaming children voicing their concern about the upcoming flight in the only way that they know how. But, if you haven’t, I can assure you that it’s stressful.

Most conferences I attend generally gift me USB drives, poor quality plastic pens or generic mugs with the conference logo printed on them*. The calibre of the “conference haul” is rarely high, but it performs a basic function. It says to the attendees “We value you being here. We value it so much that we ordered in several thousand shitty miscellaneous office supplies – even though we know that the only human contact they will receive thereinafter will be in the emergency case of a colleague you don’t particularly like asking to borrow a pen –  just to say that we appreciate your presence”.

So, when I turned up at a particular conference this year in the city of Albi, southern France, I was rather surprised to find that my conference haul was actually.. Well, it was actually a haul. Within a large canvas bag I not only had copies of the programme and some information about the local area but also an entire freshly baked baguette no less than 3ft long, a hand crafted blue beret with the conference logo sewn onto the front, and a bottle of rather expensive red wine from a local vineyard.

This was pretty fucking exciting. It was especially fucking exciting because I had presented at the same conference the year before in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  and was gifted a half-broken gym bag and a leaflet on how to avoid contracting the Zika virus**. Later on during the day it transpired that wafting your baguette while wearing the beret around absolute strangers at the conference was, instead of being obnoxiously rude, in fact a great way to get a conversation going:

“Can you believe this?” ((wangles baguette around))

“It’s crazy isn’t it? Guess we’ll all have to drink our wine together!” ((flounces off in beret))

After the initial buzz most people’s attention naturally turned back to the conference at hand. Conferences tend to last between 3 – 5 days and feature a series of presentations, panel discussions and keynote speakers. In the evenings there are often group activities or meals where you get to know other academics better***. As one of the conference evening activities was to visit a local vineyard and sample some (all) of the wines, our personal bottles escaped our attention until the night before or morning of our departure from France.

Just one of the beautiful vineyards of the region. For more photos see my Instagram @travels_of_bri

And so, a number of tactics suddenly became apparent to make the most of the expensive free wine before our looming departure. These were needed as the wine was corked: I admit that that doesn’t sound like a big obstacle in fairness, most wine bottles have corks. The problem was that we, the attendees, were staying in a French University halls of residence, that (a.) did not have any sort of cutlery or crockery available other than a single plastic cup****, and (b.) was a good 40 minute walk from the nearest civilization that didn’t have a single supermarket or place to buy a bottle opener.  

The rural picturesque countryside of Southern France was not prepared for what happened next as every academic confined to the halls of residence put their qualifications to good use. Only in the case of expensive free conference wine has the phrase “Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.” been put into such effective play.  A number of methodologies emerged:  

The group of Dutch practitioners staying on the level below me had opted for a collaboration strategy. Together they had used a divide and conquer tactic to scour the entire campus for any pens and office equipment that they could get hold of*****. They then lined up all of their personal bottles and used a different implement to try and open each with varying levels of success. They had essentially created an impromptu drinking research collaboration group, and by god they were determined to be the ones getting the research grant at the end of the day.

In stark contrast, two elderly British professors had converged on the floor above, shouting animatedly about possible solutions to the wine conundrum. As they had no tools or ways to implement said solutions they simply became louder and more enthusiastic, repeating each hypothesis with increasing gusto and conviction the more it was speculated. It didn’t matter whether the Dutch group opened the wine successfully first, the Brit’s had thought of the right thing, so as far as they were concerned they were the first authors.

The Americans had gone for a “fuck it” approach. It was simple but effective. They were aware of the commotion across the halls and by extent Albi itself, but had no interest in sharing intel nor getting their names on a paper. Several of them had gone off to nearby hotels where they had politely – and in complete isolation – opened the wine. Eventually some had returned after blearily wandering the picturesque city back to the halls irrespective of one another, and very clearly looking like they had possibly maybe drunk an entire bottle of wine each.

My own method took a little while to come into play; I thought I was being clever by observing the advances of the others and waiting to attempt to open my own bottle the next morning. As far as I was concerned I was conducting a drinking ethnography for the sake of science.

But, I was not clever. Not at all.

The next day you see, as everyone else was due to return home, I had instead decided to stay for another week or so travelling around Southern France on my own solo adventures. This meant that I needed to get to the fairly nearby city of Toulouse on my own, in a region where English was not common, and my high school French was… a bit merde… The best method I’d seen so far was devised by my American friend Rob, who had essentially dismembered the cork of the wine using a conference pencil. But Rob’s methodology was not perfect. By dismembering the cork you pushed it back into the liquid where it sat staring back at you every time you took a swig.

Silently judging you and your poorly thought-out travel plans.

The conference haul of southern France in all of it’s glory.

But, it was the best method so far and I’ll be damned if I left a good conference haul go to waste – for the sake of academia! I ended up drinking the entire bottle of wine between the hour of 8am and 9am straight from the bottle and on an empty stomach, while being silently judged by floating bits of cork, sitting on the floor of the halls of residence where the decor could only be described as ‘1984-esque’.

I’m not going to talk you through the entire ordeal that I put myself through that morning. The only things that you need to know are (a) about half way through the bottle I had to call some friends back home in England to question my life choices, (b) I definitely missed my bus despite standing outside for almost an hour before it was supposed to depart, and (c.) I have no idea how I got to Toulouse safely, let alone found my airbnb apartment*****.

My mis-adventure in Southern France taught me to beware of academics bearing free conference wine. But more importantly it taught me to beware of my own drinking standards when it comes to free alcohol, especially when you are a lone idiot abroad. A lesson well learnt.

*Sometimes I steal triple the quantity of pain au chocolat that any mere mortal can manage at breakfast, so really it’s all swings and roundabouts. I’ve become quite inventive with smuggling them out of the food hall, actually. I’ve also become exceptionally good at understanding “You there! Miss! Put the pain au chocolat down!” in a range of languages.

** As someone who can attract all 7 of the mosquitoes that inhabit England I spent my entire time in Brazil basted head to toe insect repellent. I was still bitten.

*** You get drunk together. You all get very, very drunk together.

****I saw a blunt knife at breakfast one morning but it was taken away by the staff before I could pilfer it to add to my pain au chocolat collection.

*****Ironically, all found supplies were branded by long dead conferences, covered in layers of dust and stored at the back of shelves.

******I actually had a fractured foot at this point in time also, which I’d managed to do while running a month or two earlier and not letting it rest while I was travelling around Italy and Malta. If there is one thing that I can fully endorse, it’s that you need to work out exactly where your airbnb place if BEFORE turning up in the city thinking that you can just “wing it”.

Iceland: A Whale-Watching Epiphany

Reykjavik Harbour. Find more on my Instagram @travels_of_bri

Iceland is small. As such, most of its economy is geared towards tourism.

They see what other countries do with their adventure-marketing, and they blow it out of the water like a land-mine strapped to a shark. Who has also rented a quadbike. On the side of an active volcano.

Of that tourism, a decent chunk is targeted towards whale watching. I’m pretty fond of whales. They’re large, chilled out and share my passion for seafood. So, I thought, obviously I’m going to enjoy whale watching. After all, who can resist the wonder of glimpsing a rare creature in its natural environment? Moving alongside its majestic body, hearing its delightful and chilling song. Namaste. Taekwondo. #blessed.

What I actually experienced was Brenda from the Isle of Mann loudly shouting to David, her long term partner, that “if you don’t move your fat head out of the way I won’t be able to get a picture to show Allison. You know how much she likes whales, David!”

I sympathised with David. If Allison liked whales so much I’m sure she would be doing something more productive than asking an office co-worker to take sodden, blurred images of distant lumps on the horizon. Similar conversations it transpired were also taking place in varying different languages across the deck of the boat. They were interspersed by a clearly unenthusiastic deckhand who was tasked with shouting the current location of the whales in a clock format. Only, his coordinates didn’t marry up with where the whales actually were.

Or you know, the grey lumps that I had assumed to be whales. Maybe they were rocks, or giant floating marshmallows, who knew.

In response to the deck-hand’s shouting, the entire boatload of tourists would charge at the newest location with formula one-like reaction speeds, hoping to see a different type of grey thing, in an environment made up of 99% grey things. And so, after much jostling amid the eager throng of tourists, I decided that I was going to sod off and sit below deck*. It was warm, had chairs, and more importantly still had windows to be able to see however much grey I wanted.

Below deck I encountered David sulkily staring into the depths of a cup of coffee. I assumed that he was having some sort of whale-watching epiphany, and so I left him to it. But, at least I didn’t seem to be the only one having entirely mixed feelings about the experience, I mused to myself. I wondered how many whale-watching instagram hashtags I could think of until the boat made it back to the docks***.

One of the snaps I took of Reykjavik Harbour, you can find this and similar on my Instagram account @travels_of_bri

Later on that evening I still hadn’t been able to pull apart my feelings about the whales and so I went for a walk around the harbour**. Sitting by the water in Reykjavik harbour, I shit you not, a small pod of whales glided by in pursuit of a school of fish. I stared after them disbelievingly for a while, and then glanced about me.

But, no-one else was around. Not even Brenda with her 6th sense for grey lumpy objects.

I want to tell you that it was magical and awe-inspiring… but it wasn’t. It was some creatures doing the everyday things that they do, unaware of anything else going on in this vast world. It was ordinary. And it made me feel a bit sad that our expectations for encountering and engaging with wildlife were extraordinary and ungenuine, even without the giant stick-up-the arse that is tourist-marketing.

Later on, as I was walking back to my hotel, I came across some folk campaigning against whale hunting. An enthusiastic man called Bjorn approached me and explained his sales pitch. I wanted to tell Bjorn about the experience that I had just had. But, as I looked at his pile of cartoon whale stickers and his thoughtfully chosen green-brand shirt, I realised that I didn’t have the words. Instead, I responded with “I tried to whale watch earlier…”

He looked at me quizzically, probably trying to work out whether I was having language problems or was simply an idiot.

I followed up with, “No, I mean. I like whales.”

His expression was quickly shifting towards the “simply an idiot” explanation. I hastily signed, pocketed a cartoon sticker, and pootled off as fast as my sea-legs would take me. That was the last I thought of the encounter until I returned back home to England and I put the sticker on my world map. I crossed out the speech bubble that said “Please don’t eat me!” and wrote on it in sharpy “I tried!”. I also drew a stick figure of Brenda with a camera in the background, but that kind of ruined the sombre tone of my mis-adventure, and why I wanted to keep the sticker on my wall.

Clouds over the city, more on my insta.

It wasn’t until much, much later on that I even realised what I wanted to tell Bjorn, man of whales, back in Iceland. On the one hand I wanted to support the whales. By throwing my money at the tourism industry, so long as it was protecting local ecosystems, I was playing a small part in maintaining endangered species. On the other hand I wanted to tell people to sod off. And, ideally, to stop being quite as much of an asshole. Not just when it comes to marine life, but in almost every aspect of daily life.

I didn’t really know what to do about that conundrum, so I decided to design some PRO and CON whale shirts. I simultaneously wanted people to experience David’s grumpy whale epiphany AND Brenda’s inane MDMA excitement. Both are needed. And so I concluded in my head to Bjorn – man of whales –  that humans, being a part of the natural world as well as being a shaping force of it, have a responsibility to learn before acting. To be aware of issues, and to tell ourselves that ‘it does matter’ in the grand scheme of things.

Fucking obvious, right?

I’m a little disappointed that it took so long for that conclusion to really hit home for me in an explainable moment, but nevertheless “better late than never” or [insert some other cliche here]. It marked the beginning of my wanderlust and the beginning of my being more aware: where this travel diary really begins.

So, welcome to this blog about all of my mis-adventures. I like to think of them as a shitty, majestically uninformed guidebook featuring an almost spectacular lack of narrative. I’m sure you will come to think of them in the same light, too.

Eventually I emailed Bjorn some of my shirt designs but he never replied. Asshole.

Featured on my world map, “I tried”.

*Even at the best of times I dislike crowds, and loud one’s at that. I might just dislike most people in general, really.

**There were a lot. I even got a little bit carried away with the puns. #overwhaleming.

***I told myself it was for exercise, but probably it was to get some instagrammable pictures of #sunsetporn.