Back from Belgium after one of the longest, beeriest, lack-of-sleepiest weeks of my life. For those of you unfamiliar with the low-lying country and its foibles, let me tell you that apart from eating tray-fulls of chips and mayonnaise, the other favourite past time of the Belgians is drinking beer of strength approaching or exceeding 8% (the strongest one I tasted whilst there was a whopping 11.3%, and boy was it good).
Ordinarily, you might expect such challenges to one's physiology would be sequestered outside normal working hours. But as I have already alluded, this was no ordinary conference. For a start, the beer was flowing for the whole week, as the organisers had set up a bar in the conference centre, and the barmen refused to take any money. One could down a glass of either dark or light beer (both 8%), from the first coffee-break at 10:30am, up until the end of the last session at 6:30pm.
Had this arrangement been made in Engand, I'm sure I would not have been alone in taking more than my fair share of the malted yeast solutions on offer. Perhaps I was glad to be temporarily free of the stresses of recent months, de-mob happy as I returnd to the scientific community I consider my home. Certainly I was happy to make several acquaintances, old and new, whilst I supped at the Belgian bar, and at no point did anyone suggest I should actually put down my beer glass and listen to some science.
Were my drinking restricted to conference hours, then I am sure I would not have had to take the hair of the dog most mornings with a blood mary from the contents of the mini-bar at the hotel. This was so effective that I managed to maintain a low-level of hangover then entire trip (except on the last day, when I didn't actually go to bed, and left the hotel still feeling innebriated). The reason for this, and other, late nights was the preposterous amount of hospitality laid on by the conference organisers. Normally, the kind of conference I attend is strapped for cash when it comes to sponsorship, but here there was no shortage of corporate money, and the drug companies supplying the veterinary industry were more than happy to show their generosity when it came to food and drink.
Dolores was less than enthused when I delivered my report on the week. 'I thought you said you were going to do some networking, start a collaboration, bring in some money!', she shouted when I reached the details of the final night's hospitality (a mediaeval spectacular in a 13th century castle complete with fire-eating jesters and roast wild boar).
'Well, I did network, actually...', I countered, 'I just can't quite remember what I networked about. But I'm sure, love, that it will all come back to me. I just need a couple of days to recover.'
'You what? I've been stuck here all week looking after the twins and the baby, and you say you need some time off?'
'That's not exactly what I said, I just...'. My attempts at correcting Dolores's interpretation of my needs fell on stony ears. She turned and strode off towards the kitchen. I was momentarily tempted to follow, but then my phone started ringing. I pulled it from my jeans pocket and looked at the number. It was from a Belgian mobile, but there was no name attached. 'Hello?', I said tentatively.
'Is that Joseph?', said a female voice with a flemish accent.
'Is it alright for us to talk now?'
'Er, yes. Sorry, but can I just ask who is calling?'
'You don't remember me Joseph?' said the lady, chuckling as she spoke.
'Er, no, it's not that. I just don't recognise your voice on the phone.' At this point I glanced over to the kitchen window. Dolores was doing something at the sink. Coincidentally, I presume, she looked out of the window at the same time, and must have caught the look of slight concern on my face as she frowned.
What would you have done in this situation? I had nothing to fear or to feel guilty about, yet I turned away as if to seek privacy, and then walked to an area out of sight of the kitchen. The lady on the other end of the phone was asking me whether I was still there. 'Sorry, you're going to have to tell me your name I'm afraid', I said once I was out of sight of my wife.
'OK Joseph. It's me, Clara. I did not think I would sound so different on the phone. Do you like my phone voice. My accent is not too strong for you is it?'
'I, er, no, sure. How are you?'
'I'm good Joseph. How is England?'
'Yes, the weather is getting better, thanks.'
'OK, good. You said I should call when you get back, so I called.'
'Yes, good. Well, it was nice to hear from you.'
'OK, so I guess now is not a good time to talk. Is your wife there?'
'No, I mean, er, yes. I'd better go. Bye.'
I have no idea who Clara is, or why she rang. Honest. I only mention the conversation here to prove that I am completely above board and not hiding anything. I hope.