Back from Europe

As some of you may know, every summer during the past few years I have participated in the Bioeconomy Conference in Italy, which is generally held in Ravello. This year, I added Prague and Vienna to the annual Bio economy event, and it was worth it (even though I feel guilty missing the early days of the Summer ELP).  Last year we moved our bio economy workshop to Rome, and after missing Ravello for a year it looked even more glamorous and felt like home away from home. The meeting was moved from the old regal Rufolo villa to a new convention center.

Both locations have magnificent views of the Mediterranean and the new center is in a shell shaped structures with a wonderful veranda full of modern statues and overall is very elegantly designed but it is tough to compete with a classic Italian Palazzo. However the quiet air conditioning and the smooth operation of the audiovisual systems – made for a significant improvement- and I visited Villa Rufolo for good measure.

Two participants from UC Davis stole the show in Ravello: Abhaya Dandekar, who is a plant biologist, enlightened us about the potential of genetic engineering protecting trees against pests. We are all aware that GMO applications reduce pest damage in field crops, but with climate change pests will move and genetic engineering can provide effective tools to protect immobile trees. Abhaya is an excellent teacher, and I learned from his two lectures what I was not able to get from many years of high school botany. Alan L. Olmstead is one of my favorite speakers, but this time he was supreme. His tour-de-force presentation on the resistance to new technologies throughout history from tractors to plows to potatos, tomatos, germ theory of disease and many more, put the resistance to GM in context and suggested to me that there is hope. I also enjoyed our session with wine economists, the economics of wine and fermentation is fascinating and the good thing about this topic is the application.

This was my first visit to both Prague and Vienna. Prague was as good as promised. It is a city for walkers – full of many gems – spectacular palaces, churches and interesting buildings. A river runs in the middle of town and is a wonderful navigational tool (even I couldn’t get lost too much) and makes it pleasant to walk even when the temperature is 30 degrees Celsius. The city has ten or so impressive bridges, none more spectacular than the Charles bridge – which is 1000 years old and has memorable statues and two imposing towers. The bridge is full of artisans and craftsmen and crowded with tourists. In some ways it felt like a Telegraph avenue on steroids – familiar sweet smells, punk art, but the majestic view of the river, and of the Prague castle, made the hour stroll I took on the bridge unforgettable. I also hired a car and driver to take me around to see the castle, as I had reached my hiking capacity.

I went to visit the Jewish town out of sense of duty and curiosity and was really touched. It felt like the most Jewish place I have been outside of Jerusalem. The famous old/new synagogue looks like I had imagined it-   a modest stone building built below the street level with dark furniture, minimal ornamentation and few windows. It is designed to serve the needs of Orthodox people who pray and study there 24/7. I could see my grandmother feeling at home there.

The surprise was the magnificent Spanish synagogue, which is spacious, and the beautiful and intricate gold colored patterns painted on the walls reminded me of the walls of the Moorish temples of Seville. I was really touched by the beautiful stained glass windows and large dome featuring Jewish themes, that created a different and much more spiritual ambiance than that of the synagogues I escaped on a weekly basis as a kid. In the midst of the Jewish center there is statue of Franz Kafka, who is promoted throughout the city (you can go to his house, museum, and cafes named after him…not too shabby for a shy hermit). The Kafka statue was surrounded by adoring American (?) tourists, so from far away I thought that he was riding on a horse.  (I could not help thinking of Mel Brooks or producing a Jewish western starring Woody Allen as Kafka the cowboy… it can be great sequel to Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein), but after a second look, he wasn’t on a horse. You tell me what he is riding…

Obviously, the conference itself was secondary to the City itself. There were some good sessions and I was reunited with many good friends. One thing about the European environmental economists is that they know to run a show and the two evening events were quite impressive, especially when a bunch of economists prove to be top-notch musicians.

I spent two days in Vienna – walking five hours after arriving in the city center and appreciating the imposing buildings (opera, theaters, etc.) built mostly during the Hapsburg period. The size of the statue is correlated with historical importance (or popularity) and no one was bigger than Maria Theresa. In spite of my aversion to carbs, I could not resist sampling some of the Viennese pastries, ice cream, etc. and their good culinary reputation is well-deserved. I stayed in a hotel that prides itself on being energy neutral and actually they have great breakfasts and wonderful service. The price for ‘going green’ was that lack of air-conditioning in 36 degree C weather- so my experience in the army came in handy here – I slept on the green grass until 3 am and then snuck back into my not-so-hot room.

We had wonderful workshop on adaptation to climate change in mountain regions such as in Austria and Switzerland, and how new sources of data are used to develop practical agricultural management tools. I believe that this conference would lead to interesting collaboration on climate change and energy.

After the conference, we returned to the wine motif and we went to a winery in the middle of Austria where they served ‘spritz’ and various sausages without you noticing how the evening passed. Now I am back in Berkeley, and catching up with the ELP.

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