GTNF 2012 was surreal. Here are some highlights:
Arrived in Antwerp via Brussels late afternoon on Wednesday. Antwerpen-Centraal is one of the finest railway stations I have ever seen. Described as a "railway cathedral", it has platforms on several levels, one above the other, like a very ornate multi-storey car park for trains.
After checking into my hotel, 200 yards from the station, I joined other delegates for a welcome reception - in a warehouse in a bleak industrial landscape 20kms from the city centre.
We were taken there by coach and when we arrived and were driven directly into the warehouse my only thought was ... Reservoir Dogs.
Inside the large enclosed space were hundreds of pallets and packing cases. Food and drink were liberally dispensed and our hosts had been good enough to create a special area using pallets for raked seating so we could watch the Germany-Holland match live on a large screen in one corner.
Before and after the match we ate and drank and mingled with other guests. The UK contingent was very similar to Bangalore 2010. Among the foreign delegates there were several familiar faces but many that I didn't know at all. It was good to catch up or meet someone new.
Day One of the conference began on Thursday with an early morning alarm call and instructions to join a coach that would take us to our conference boat - or boats, because there were two of them.
From the outside neither looked particularly impressive. The smaller of the two, painted gun metal grey, looked like a hospital ship for wounded sailors.
Inside, however, the larger of the two revealed itself to be a modern, well-equipped event space. There were two decks, upper and lower, with an outside walkway around the upper deck. (Delegates could smoke on the walkway or on the enclosed upper deck.)
The upper deck featured a large balcony that overlooked the main conference area on the lower deck. There were bars on each level, a small exhibition space on the top deck, an additional meeting room on the lower deck and a further meeting area on the upper deck. The toilets were large, airy, colourful and immaculately clean – better than many top hotels.
The larger boat hosted the main presentations, which were attended by all delegates, and some of the panel discussions. The smaller boat – which had two decks including a large open upper deck – was used primarily for panel discussions. (The open upper deck was used for smoking and drinking.)
The conference worked like this: both boats would be on the move during the presentations but when it was time for the panel discussions they would moor alongside one another so we could move from one to the other. Then the smaller craft would set off for the duration of the session (about 80 minutes) before returning to the mother ship.
On Thursday, having glided along one canal after another, we found ourselves eventually in Tholen, a small but picturesque town overlooking an estuary in the south west of Holland. (Hence the persistent instruction to delegates to bring our passports.)
It was late afternoon when we arrived and the first 50 to leave the boat were split into two groups and given a guided tour of the town. It seemed largely deserted apart from a handful of curious locals who stared at us and wondered why we were each holding a large red umbrella even though the sun was shining and there was a bright blue sky.
(Oddly, this was never explained properly to any of us. We were all handed umbrellas that we meekly accepted and clung to throughout the tour. Why?!)
Each group was accompanied by a tour guide and an accordionist who played in fits and starts whenever the tour guide stopped talking. Eventually, after an hour of this madness, we turned a corner and found ... a street party that had been organised in our honour.
Children in Dutch national costume served delicious food on silver platters. There was complimentary wine and beer. We could not have received a warmer or more hospitable welcome. (Did they know who we were?!)
Then it was back to the smaller boat for more drinks on the open top deck as we waved to a group of locals who stood on the grassy dike to bid us farewell. (I'm not making this up!)
Finally, we transfered to the larger boat where we had dinner as it travelled slowly back to Antwerp. It was midnight when we got back – almost 15 hours after we set off. To say I was tired is an understatement. It was time for bed.
Day Two began wet and windy. Undeterred, we set off by coach (again) to join our boats. (One UK delegate, who shall remain nameless, slept in, missed the coach and had to get a taxi to the boat which had already set off. He eventually caught up with us when the two boats stopped between sessions so that they could moor side by side. He was just in time for the session in which he was speaking.)
More presentations, more panel discussions, more food and drink. By mid afternoon GTNF 2012 was all over.
As far as I could tell most delegates left immediately – by car, train or plane – but some of us had chosen to stay on. We wanted to watch the England-Sweden match.
And so to Kelly's Irish bar where we watched the game on a giant screen surrounded by a raucous but good-humoured crowd featuring several nationalities, staring in disbelief when Sweden scored and punching the air when England did likewise. Final score:
Staring In Disbelief 2 – 3 Punching The Air
Afterwards we sat outside (it was a no smoking bar, rigorously enforced) and contemplated what we had just seen.
Like the conference, there were highs and lows. Ultimately both the match and the conference left a smile on my face. You can't ask for more than that.
PS. I haven't written about what was said at the conference because we were asked to respect the long-established Chatham House Rule.
Here is the full list of speakers. It's worth mentioning that one of the most interesting was "tobacco and public health expert" Scott Ballin whose participation was quite a coup for the organisers.
There needs to be more not less interaction between the tobacco lobby and tobacco control. Credit to Scott Ballin and Tobacco Reporter, who organised the conference, for recognising this.
Also, in case I have given the impression that all we did was eat and drink, I should add that over the two days I must have spent at least nine hours listening to or participating in one tobacco-related discussion after another.
Believe me, that's no picnic.