A paper and panel in Portugal


My first foreign trip to deliver a talk at an invited conference was in the town of Potelegre in Portugal. I noticed two features of the papers delivered at the conference by the Portuguese that are different from North American traditions. First, the words "and finally" are spoken about one quarter of the way into a paper. Second, there is a time limit on papers that was more or less enforced, but there is no time limit on questions. In North America, a speaker may take as many as five or even ten briefly stated questions. In Portugal that would be impossible.

The first questioner would typically go on and on, often with a vivid passion and exuberance far exceeding that of the paper. I concluded that these were the people whose papers had been rejected and they were delivering them as lengthy questions instead, determined to show how foolish the organizers were to have rejected them. But there is something oddly soothing about listening to a paper that one cannot understand at all.

My paper, delivered with the help of glamourous overheads, was to be followed by a panel on which I was also to sit. That day had begun leisurely. I had read a book for half an hour after breakfast on the balcony, lulled by cow-bells in the languid air, and distracted by finches and a variety of stunning beetles. ("What can you infer about God from his creations?" J.D.S. Haldane was once asked. "That He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.") Then took a stroll in the garden, where I encountered the conference organizer, Maria do Céu Roldão, and the famous professor from the Sorbonne who would also be on the panel with me after lunch. I can't recall her name, except that it was the same as a make of French car - Dr. Cotroen, or Renault, or Peugeot. Let us say Citroen.

She was utterly charming, beginning with effusive praise for my work, as I muttered deprecating and utterly insincere noises, and then asking me a series of questions about recent books. I answered as best I could. "How interesting!" she would say. "Ah, a telling insight!" "So very true!" "This is all so important, I must ensure its immediate translation into French." Clearly a woman of great discernment as well as charm.

The bus eventually came and took us to the conference site, my overheads did their job and the talk seemed to go well, and then the panel gathered for its discussion. When it was Dr. Citroen's turn, she launched into an extended and bitter denunciation of my work as exemplifying a range of obtuse confusions and an active malevolence directed at perverting the minds of the world's children. She hoped that the audience would join her in treating my descpicable and patently erroneous theory with the contempt it so richly merited. This was spoken in French, so I was able to follow even without the help of my translator who, I thought rather exaggerated the vitriol.

Then it was my turn. I could think of no reason not to agree with her.

Dr. Kieran Egan