Hullo now from Oxford. I've now returned from a week of bliss in Tromsø. Aside from (although maybe because of) the frighteningly expensive cost of eating and drinking there, I had a great time. The reason for being there was to attend the ACTIF conference and give a paper on a flood-forecasting system that my lovely friend Emma had written. Due to the same reasons that she couldn't present the paper that she had written for the conference I went to in Australia, again I was forced out of my comfortable life in Oxford but this time instead of it being the searing heat of Australia I was driven north to the frozen wastes of the Arctic.
Life is hard sometimes.
The ACTIF conference was largely a academic/bureaucratic affair on the uncertainty in flood-forecasting (think our inability to predict where and how much rain will fall with much confidence, for example) with limited scope for applied case studies, which was where I came in. The obvious question that comes up a lot is 'why on earth was it is in Tromsø?. By the way, it is not 'Tromso' but 'Tromsø' when you pronounce Tromsø you need to turn the ø into a quick 'er' sound, and not an 'o'. For a start Tromsø is a lot less frozen than you think it is. In fact, its coldest recorded temperature (-18C) is warmer than that recorded at Benson (-20C), which is about a mile from where I work. But the principal reason that it was held in Tromsø was that this is where one of the organisers lives. I can't say I was that upset about it.
Tromsø is quite simply magnificent. Hell, here's a picture. It's the view from the room that I spent five nights in:
I miss this view.
The country pulled together people from about 25 countries, including the UK, NZ, the USA, Columbia, Oz, Denmark, Italy, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Belarus, Iran, Rumania, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Slovenia, Ukraine, Russia, China, Italy, Spain... There were only about 100 delegates, so from many countries there was only one delegate. This made for a whole lot of meeting and greeting. The beautiful thing about this was that almost everybody was up for it. As we all nursed and bemoaned and laughed at our £5 'pints' (pints a way to generous a word for the 400mL glasses I was served) the ice, as it were, was broken. I knew a couple of people, darren and Paul, from work, and there were two Belgian girls, Severien and Siegi, that I had never met but have dealt with a lot as they are clients of my companies. Then there was Albrecht, the Dutchman who organised the last ACTIF conference (see here for my coments on that one - where the hell does a year go?), and he had a colleague Micha, and with that we had the bones of a drinking posse. On the Sunday night we managed to add Brummie Tim and Jan, a colleague of the Belgians.
Come the brewery tour that wasn't (a long and dull story - essentially the £40 that we each paid only covered entry to the brewery, a meal and a half glass of wine that Darren, using his authority as conference organiser and indignation at being ripped off, managed to turn into a 'pint' of beer), and the realisation that some of had unwittingly eaten seal and/or whale as part of the meal (yes, that is a legitimate part of the diet up in those parts), those of us left started wandering the streets of Tromsø in search of a pint that cost less than £40 and didn't come with a side of marine mammal. By this stage we had picked up the Dutch Maaike, the lovely and engaging Anna from Sweden, and the ever-so-quiet but very pleasant Markus from Finland, as well as 'three missed planes' Dave from the UK Environment Agency.
It's hard to put into words, but the vibe in the group was really nice. There were no knob-ends of people, no-one dominated the conversation, and we all seemed to become good friends, despite having met in quite odd circumstances. If I could bottle the vibe and live off it I would. About the way I can think of describing it that it is like crawling into bed and listening to the rain on the roof and feeling all snug. And that probably sounds naff, but that's how it feels. The following night we added a trio of Italians, and another dutchman and all talked about nothing and nursed pints in Skalvern, a pub that had seemed to become my local (I went there three times in five nights). the group photo is below (the names are for my benefit so I don't forget).
Cinzia, 'three missed planes' Dave, Anna, Markus, Moi, Brummie Tim (but he's behind the pole and you can't see him), Darren, Albrecht, Micha, Severien, Jan, Luc and Enrica. Siegi, who is expecting had long since offed to bed. To the right (and out of shot) is a bunch of loud-singing-glass breaking Norweigans who seemed to being singing an Arctic version of Bliss, the New Zealand drinking song. Ja-ja-ja-ja-jah-ja. Forget about the last one, get yourself another. So long as you have the deed to your house and a promise of your firstborn when you attempt to buy a round, that is.
By the time I managed to get round to presenting my paper the following day, and, with the belief that even though she hadn't got my desperate email for prayer that Jane would still have prayed in hindsight, it went really well. It was not really my goal but I seemed to make my audience laugh several times (try to remember, Richard, that this is a academic conference and not new-faces in Tromsø comedy scene) and I was complemented on my paper by several random people. Nice. And with that, a first multinational contingent made a dash for Tromsø airport (a surprising amount of flights - about a dozen 737s each day - come in to Tromsø each day, and most of them are full, which isn't bad for a city of 60,000). This time the group was comprised of myself, the two Italians girls, a Chinese man living in Holland, a Columbian living in Spain, and (you can't make this stuff up) an Ethiopian living in Norway. This group was a brilliant way to end the conference. We all sat at the airport and laughed some more.
By the time we landed at Oslo, it was down to just Cinzia, Enrica and myself, as we were all staying in Oslo that night. Despite it being 10.30pm, the three of us wandered the streets of Oslo to find food (no Scandanavian Airlines - budget or traditional - serve food for free to the Economy classes). This required dodging all the prostitutes that were on every street corner and offering a variety of goods and services to ageing Norwegian men. This just seemed desparately sad. Almost all of them were African women and it didn't take much to wonder at the pimps who no doubt ran them and the journey they must have taken to get to Oslo. With one last 'pint' I escorted the girls to their hotel (what a gentleman) and then ran the gauntlet back to mine.
Tromsø: what a fantastic place. Beautiful, but like any great place it is the people that make it so. Thanks to everybody who made it so, be they Belgian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Italian... or be they Jim, Matt, Tom, Jon or Jane who prayed for me, or a Canadian-Czech guy in the blogosphere who encouraged me. Life had been hard before I left. I'm not saying it isn't anymore, but I needed to have an experience like this.
Did I see the Northern Lights? Did I Bollocks.