Friday, September 30, 2022

Conference: Austria vs. Italy

 After a long time (more than two years), I packed for some days off, not on vacation, but for attending an Austrian conference in Leoben. It was a strange feeling thinking of what I might need in a hotel. When I visit my parents in Italy, I don’t need many tools, almost everything is doubled at my parents’ place. Now, I need a pyjama, toot brush, etc. In addition, I had to take with me the hated poster tube.

Trustful to my (green) tradition, I travelled by train, enjoying the beautiful but slow moving landscape at Semmering. The hotel, close to the former Abbey Göss (and the Gösser Brewery), was lovely. From my window, I could see the river Mur and a large gold quarry in between dark green woods. Again in a hotel after so much time. The first night, I couldn’t sleep, not because I was excited or because the room was noisy, but because I wasn’t used anymore to change bed. I’m getting old.

Historical town hall in Leoben

The conference has been organized by the Austrian Geological Society (and the Austrian Mineralogical Society, as well) at the University of Leoben, a relatively young (since 1840) technical university. The organization was outstanding, the location was easily reachable and the lecture halls comfortable. Lunches and coffee breaks (starting with a morning coffee and sweets) were included in the registration fee and were provided by the local cafeteria. Not bad at all. Even though I skipped the overcrowded social dinner, I enjoyed much the icebreaker party, attended by just a few people. The quality of talks was quite high, there was room for opposite interpretations, without strong fights (Austrians are not Italian). Except for an entertaining public lecture, everything was in English. The University of Leoben hosts several international students, but it was also a pleasure to realize that I’m not the only non-German-speaking senior scientist (not a temporary student), who learned enough German to feel somehow integrated in the local geological community (well, actually, just being able to discuss some geological points, but still being considered a foreigner). The only two "negative" points were the arbitrary subdivision in sessions (more than one talk or poster ended up in the "wrong" session considering the audience and the topic), and the fact that the conference began on a Sunday quite early in the morning. A plus was the guided tour offered through the relatively small city center of Leoben. Very instructive. The biggest surprise was finding an Asian gate next to the university… even though there are no strong connections between Leoben and China. It is actually a spa.

St. Barbara, protector of miners and geologists

I loved speaking "geology" again, jumping between languages and topics. Even though the conference was only focused on terrestrial features, I met a colleague of mine employed in Leoben and we talked a bit about meteorites, too. Just the week before this conference, I had attended a workshop in Vienna organized by an Austrian professor emigrated in the UK and financed by the European Research Council. It was also amazing for the quality of the talks and the scientific exchanges. The online meetings offer a great opportunity, saving money and carbon emissions, but will never replace a conference in person, also accounting for the risk of an infection. Looking forward to the next in person meeting.

… I didn't have to waiting too long. The week after, I was in Italy for the Italian equivalent of the conference in Leoben. I travelled by train, this time too, but from Padova, instead of Vienna. Italian high-speed trains are indeed faster than Austrians, touching 300 km/h. Train vs. car: 1:0, but also against airplanes, considering the time lost at airports.

The conference took place in Turin, the first capital city of Italy (when Rome was still under the power of the Pope). Every stone there is dedicated to the "Risorgimento", the movement that led to the reunification of Italy under the "French" crown of Savoy, mostly against the Austrian empire in the NE and the Bourbon dynasty in the S, and the Pope in the central Italy. The second language, after Italian, is French, still spoken by many, as much as German is (was) the second language in my hometown. As always, when I attend a conference in Italy, I swear I won’t come another time… and every time, I attend another one. The final evaluation wasn’t that negative, though, so I made a list of plus and minus about the city and the conference. Castello, Turin


- Automatic subway (existing since years and very efficient)

- green areas in the city

- drinking fountains everywhere

- delicious cookies, chocolate (pralines, like in Brussels), and ice cream

- meeting again professors of mine and colleagues from the past

- amazing science in some cases, despite the lack of funding


- Public transit (bus and tram) and motor traffic

- conference schedule (practically from 8:30 to 7:30 pm with almost no break, but a large "nothing" between 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm)

- rooms disproportionated for the selected session, with several seats unusable because broken

- low accessibility (room at the third floor with no elevator, toilet in the basement, also without elevator, poster area ca. 1 km from the oral sessions and again with steps at the entrance)

- conference center in an almost red light district (it wasn’t, but some female "workers" were standing next to the conference center entrance also during the day)

- illogical conference program book (at least for a brain used to the German efficiency and logic…)

- last but not least.... the non-sustainable conference sponsor, which had a stand in the center of the poster area, playing music all the time, forcing us to shout in front of the posters to be heard.

In summary, in Leoben, I appreciated the scientific contributions and the location, in Turin, I enjoyed the (also scientific) chats with colleagues and meeting again people from my past (not only professors, but also colleagues, some of which moved out of academia or the country, like myself). However, I'd prefer meeting Italian colleagues in the framework of a cooperation, rather than "investing" research money in an over expensive conference. On the other hand, I'll be happy to attend again Austrian conferences in the future. 

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