I am in Prague, doing my usual conference work for Inter-Disciplinary.Net. From its beginnings 13 years ago with one conference per year, ID.Net now runs 63 projects, next year 70, with annual conferences for each in Prague, Salzburg, Oxford, or Sydney. The organization is growing almost too fast to keep up with itself, and I’m happy that I’ve taken a backseat for the time being; I can sit back and make observations (some of them useful!) without actually being part of the decision making. I’m one of two or three Meetings Managers now. All that involves is showing up and being extremely efficient for a couple of weeks, and then going away again til the next time. I can do that! This role requires no ongoing preparation or logistics. All I have to do is be helpful, make sure everyone is where they are supposed to be and has what they need. In fact, it’s even less than that, because we work with an events management company called Prague Events Solutions that sets everything up for us, including the catering. So I just show up and am nice to people. You have to have a ‘go to’ person, and that’s me. On the rare occasions when anything goes wrong, I earn my keep. In the meantime, I’m free to dip into whatever sessions take my fancy. Occasionally I have to take over a project, if the leader gets ill or something, but this only happens once in a blue moon.
At the moment we have two projects running concurrently: “Urban Popcultures” and “Interculturalism, Meaning and Identity”. At UP we have 14 countries represented; at IC, 19. This is the most exciting aspect of the work – that, and the inter-disciplinary makeup of the participants. Each project meets for 3 or 4 days. Next up, starting tomorrow, are “Pluralism, Inclusion, and Citizenship” and “Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds”. I will definitely attend some of the latter, as I’ll be teaching an online course in the fall on ethical decision making, using Second Life as the learning platform. I got the idea from last year’s meeting. Yesterday, I went to talks by speakers from Barbados, Romania, Taiwan, and Turkey.
The weather in Prague is good old March weather, nice and breezy, a little on the cold side (in the 40s during the day, 30s in the evening). Today is a good day to be indoors, as it’s kind of showery. I’ll be stuck in the Michna Palace til 5.30 anyway…It really is (or was) a palace, so the meeting rooms have 30′ ceilings with lots of stone gingerbreading. Very picturesque. We have a ban on powerpoints, because we really encourage dialogue, but it is very hard to pry people away from their dependence on technology. While I was writing this, the project leader for IC came out to count to ten because someone had snuck in a powerpoint. We don’t mind people using images, but we do object to the didactic stance of powerpoint. It’s the distinction between data, information, and knowledge that’s at issue, and the difference between having a dialogue and having a lecture.
Unless they were brought up here, anyone who says they love Czech cuisine is probably a liar. The food is heavy, hefty even, and very meat-based. Beer is cheaper than water. Good stick-to-your-ribs food – if you’re out working on the land all day! If you’re sitting in a conference room all day, it’s just an invitation to extra poundage. I am still devoted to my weight-loss project, so it’s fruit and yogurt for breakfast, fruit at the coffee breaks, salad for lunch, and then whatever I can find for dinner that didn’t once moo, bleat, grunt or squawk. Fortunately I’ve been here several times now, so I know a great Indian restaurant and a couple of good Thai and Italian places too.
I titled this entry as I did because the city is magical by night, but by day it is a visual nightmare that seesaws between the gray legacy of communism and the colorful whimsy of the early 1900s. The city is literally stuffed full of churches (mostly Baroque or Rococo) and statues of saints everywhere you turn, yet only 4% of the Czech population is still Catholic. And everyone in the service industries speaks a little bit of English, yet if you wander off the beaten track by even a few yards (or from the usual pleasantries of hello, how much, and thank you) there isn’t much cultural overlap between Czech and English. No one expects foreigners to speak Czech, though. There are so many ex-pats here that they have their own daily newspaper! It was very cheap and easy to live here in the 1990s, less so now, but still dirt cheap if you can work from home.
I should probably go do something official. More later from this fascinating place.