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Conference in Písek, 1976

My book, On One Occasion … Ivory Tower and Road Warrior Stories, details my professional life as an electronics consultant engineer.  I spent ten years as a researcher and lecturer at Southampton University (the Ivory Tower) and a further twenty-eight years in industry, mostly as a one-man-band consultant roving the world (the Road Warrior).  The book contains many stories: some funny, some sad, and some just interesting.  Here is one of the funny ones.

Preamble.  In 1976, I was invited to present a paper at a conference in Písek, then part of Russian-controlled Czechoslovakia, now in the Czech Republic.  I travelled out a few days early and stayed the weekend in Prague with a Czech colleague of mine, Jan Hlavicka.  Then we went down to the conference …

After the end of the weekend, Jan drove me to Písek to present the invited paper.  Several incidents stick out.  The first is that on the way, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in a small town.  The waitress gave Jan the menu and then said something in Czech.  Jan turned to me and said, “They have only that item today,” pointing to one entry on the menu.  I don’t recall what it was but it was simple and basic.

At the conference, I gave my invited paper and then listened to two other invited papers, one from a Frenchman and one from a West German.  Then the three of us were placed around a small table right in front of the main audience and an interpreter joined us and started translating what was being said onstage.  He spoke into a hand-held microphone connected to our headphones through an amplifier.  We all spoke English and he translated into English.  So, there we sat, trying hard to concentrate on what, to us, were fast becoming very boring academic presentations.

Towards the end of what had been a long day, it was clear to our interpreter that we’d had enough.  The Frenchman had removed his headphones and either the German or I, it could have been both, were having a job keeping our eyes open.  Suddenly, a question came over the headphones: “Do I take it that you no longer wish me to continue translating?”  The German and I looked up and nodded our assent.  “Okay,” he said, “I’ll tell you a joke.”

What!  You can’t do that, I screamed silently.  We’re right in the front of the room, fully exposed to some two hundred delegates behind us including some sinister looking heavies in suits and dark glasses.  We’re tired and less able to control our emotions.  Please don’t do this!

The interpreter must have seen the panic in my face but he just smiled and turned to the Frenchman and indicated that he put his headphones back on.  The interpreter then proceeded to tell a joke.  I don’t recall it but it was funny!  It was as much as I could do not to react but the German couldn’t hold it.  He burst out into a huge guffaw and then tried to cover up with a forced cough but it was too late.  The whole room heard the laugh.  The presenter on stage stopped presenting his paper and just looked down at our table no doubt wondering what he had said that was so funny.

Eventually, the situation subsided.  The German regained control of himself and adopted a serious face.  The onstage presenter restarted his presentation and the normal calm of the conference was restored.  But, it didn’t stop there.  Once things were moving along again, the interpreter’s voice suddenly came over the headphones: “Now it’s your turn to tell a joke,” and with that he passed the microphone to the Frenchman and indicated that he now relate a funny story.

It was a nightmare of the worst proportions.  The interpreter insisted that we each tell a joke and even though the jokes were not necessarily that funny, the situation we were in exacerbated the need not to react in any way when it came to the punch line.  We survived, but it was touch and go and probably one of the worst situations I have ever found myself in.