I’m going to play this up a bit.

My last few days at my internship in Vienna, that is. Considering I started this post on the train ride from Vienna to Garmisch, wrote a bit more in Stuttgart, and am now finishing it and posting it from my grandfather’s beloved recliner chair in my grandparents’ house in northern New York — a house I know as well as any house I’ve lived in — you can see how I am still reeling from all of the following.

I spent my final week at my newspaper internship preparing for the big story I was going to be covering with another reporter the weekend right before I left Vienna. The 2010 AIDS Conference was just around the corner (I think I wrote about its prestige in previous posts) and Vienna was getting ready. Even the U.N. was on board, which I noticed during a tour of the Vienna’s U.N. Headquarters (my second one…) earlier in the week.

Hannah and I were going to be covering the highly selective pre-conference workshop, the theme of which was “Towards a Cure: HIV Reservoirs and Strategies to Control Them.” Where was the world in terms of AIDS cure research? What’s a HIV reservoir, and why are they so important? How much do huge collaborative conferences like these really matter in the world of science, and how do certain doctors get selected to present at workshops and conferences like these?

These are just a few of the things Hannah and I began researching in anticipation of the thousands of doctors arriving in Vienna from around the world for the conference. We had been in contact with two big-name doctors from a laboratory in the U.S. and would be meeting them and interviewing them over the course of the workshop weekend (they had been selected to present at the workshop). We knew we had to be ready to speak their language, and considering neither Hannah nor I have much of a science background, we had a lot of work to do.

Cue phone calls, internet research, even more copious amounts of coffee (and here I thought caffeine was only desperately needed in the days before an issue of the paper went to print) and late nights at Hannah’s downtown apartment. Articles, doctors’ background information, HAART research, enzymes, pharmaceutical companies, the vaccine vs. cure funding controversy, infection every five seconds… our heads were swimming, but we had a grasp on what we were about to encounter. Or so we thought.

We first met with our two doctors (whose names I don’t want to write in this blog; you’ll have to check out our article later on for those specifics!) at the workshop venue, the University of Vienna.

After the poster session and workshop, we agreed to meet up with them a bit later to take them to dinner for our formal interview. Hannah and I left to make reservations at a nice Austrian restaurant (our two doctors were Indian and French and wanted a “typical Austrian meal”) and to do more research and revise our questions, based on the afternoon poster session and our initial meeting. When we returned to “pick up” the doctors, we learned they were supposed to go to a formal reception and so could not join us for dinner. And this is when I learned important Journalism Lesson #1 (though at this point it was probably #67): Be flexible. At all times.

“I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem if you came along…” one of the doctors said. Hannah and I looked at each other; to attend events surrounding the workshop and conference like this, anyone from the press needed to have been formally invited and received press accreditation months before – we had neither. But all the doctors were pouring out of the workshop venue, buses were being loaded, and, well, what’s the worst that could happen?

So. We managed to “sneak” into this very fancy reception (where there were no other journalists, I might add). Walking in, we were greeted with blinding camera flashes (yes, really) and glasses of champagne (we declined, and I decided this was probably Lesson #2: Don’t drink on the job, no matter how classy the environment). We followed the two doctors to a standing white table and started mingling. Here’s where we had to be quick on our feet: “What did you think of the first day of the workshop?” one doctor, mistaking me for a doctor, asked. “Well. What did YOU think of it?” I quickly responded. (Lesson #3: Let them assume.) It worked. He talked for a while, and I listened and nodded — with a few ah, yes‘s and I couldn’t agree more‘s here and there — until we were all ushered into a great hall for speeches and entertainment. Afterward, we ate multiple courses of incredible food and were able to interview – albeit informally – our two doctors.

Thus, night number one? Full of surprises, nothing according to plan, and left me with stars in my eyes as I wrote myself to sleep when I finally got home to bed.

Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine

***

Night number two began at an upscale seafood restaurant in the Naschmarkt, where we took the doctors for the formal interview. Hannah and I learned so much from these doctors and from what we observed over the weekend – it was truly incredible. Anyway, we decided to eat first and “talk business” after. Although Hannah and I had now met with these doctors twice, we were still a bit nervous. Needless to say, we were on our best behavior and were certainly watching our manners.

But you know who doesn’t care about fancy work dinners or good impressions? Flies. And so, when a small one landed in my wine (which was insisted on by our hosts, I should add) and drowned, all I could do was gulp – and consider my options. Fish it out with a spoon? My grandmother would turn over in her grave. Take huge swallows of my wine to get rid of it? Not so classy. So, I sat, continued talking, drank my water, and — can you believe it — actually thought about what Emily Post might say. And I decided that the queen of etiquette would advise me to sit back and pretend nothing was wrong until my host noticed the little intruder. Which he did. “Oi, Natalie, you have something in your wine. It’s a – what, it’s like – oi, a fly! Waiter! She needs a new glass.” Crisis averted, though my notes during those ten minutes or so did suffer.

The rest of the dinner went smoothly – until it came time for dessert. I think I’ve mentioned that the Naschmarkt is somewhat of a touristy spot, and touristy spots in European cities mean all kinds of cheesy people bustling around trying to earn some money. Enter the flamboyantly dressed Spanish violinists who come sauntering down the aisle near our outdoor table playing a romantic little tune. Seeing two young ladies and two relatively young well-dressed men, they stop. Hannah and I are in the middle of inquiring about the best way to lure latent bits of the HIV virus out of host cells (we had quickly learned Lesson #4: Be prepared to ask questions on the fly. No pun intended, of course). We keep talking with the doctors while the Spanish men are dancing and playing not ten inches from us. When they become impossible to ignore — can’t they see this is our big break?! C’mon! — one of our doctors gets out €5 and asks them to play something Russian. He asks Hannah and I if we mind taking a break to “enjoy the music.” “Of course not,” we say, putting our notes aside. When in Rome Vienna, right?

***

In the end, we got our story — and plenty more stories to go along with it. I cannot get over how incredibly cool it was to get a glimpse of what Hannah and I did. I’m not a science gal, but I was having conversations about enzymes and receptor sites and I got completely and 100% caught up in the excitement of the 2010 AIDS Conference, the path towards a cure, and the charge to the current generation to turn the page of AIDS cure research. Hannah and I are still working on our article; it’ll be in the September issue of The Vienna Review. I’ll be working on a number of pieces between now and the end of August, actually – funnily enough, I’m doing the most important of my work for the paper now that I’ve left the newsroom, and Vienna.

by the way – here’s part of the newsroom.

So, I didn’t get to spend hours reading and writing in the famous Café Central while in Vienna as I had hoped, but I did land my first real reporting gig, covering something that I find so incredibly important, relevant, and interesting. And I want the world (okay, or at least all the readers of The Vienna Review) to know about what’s new in the world of AIDS cure research. So, for the real story, make sure to check out http://www.viennareview.net/ come September.

Also, one of my stories from the July/August issue was just posted: http://www.viennareview.net/sports-and-travel/navigating-rails-4030.html

***

I’ll leave you with my last few scenes of Vienna:

Hannah and I are sitting in our editor’s living room after our dinner with the doctors. It’s pouring rain outside. She’s lying on the couch listening to us recollect our past 48 hours of adventures, watching us almost shouting in excitement (there’s no shushing us now) about what we’ve learned regarding this new chapter of AIDS cure research, how our interviews went, what angles we think our story can take. Our editor is pleased. She tells me to come back to Vienna whenever I can, “We’ll find a way for you to stay here.” I sit back, thinking about life after graduation – working for this paper in Vienna. I’m reeling, completely reeling.

With no intention of heading home right away (despite the fact that I have an early train to catch), Hannah and I leave our editor’s place in hopes of checking out what’s left of the Life Ball downtown in front of the Rathaus. We arrive to find it mostly rained out, but that doesn’t stop us from posing for pictures on the red carpet, after which we traipse around watching people in their glamorous costumes running through the rain. We stamp in rain puddles and sing Christmas carols, because, well, we’re young twenty-somethings and it’s my last night in Vienna. Hannah made me cherry cupcakes earlier that day, which she served on Winnie-the-Pooh plates. See? Perfect.

Hannah getting drenched on the red carpet — there’s a first time for everything!

When we finally said our goodbye’s, I took the train home, only to have to walk twelve blocks to my apartment — heels in hand — in the pouring rain. I arrived at my door soaked, breathless, and with the biggest smile on my face.

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2 thoughts on “AIDS 2010: my first real story.

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