It's a sunny Saturday morning in Krakow, and escorted by the delightful Ola, myself, James Ladyman, and Sir Roger Penrose, are climbing into the taxi which will take us to the airport, where we will catch an EasyJet flight back home to Gatwick.
Sir Roger climbs into the front, and I clamber into the middle of the back seat alongside James. Ola is about to fill the remaining spot, when, spying my longer legs, she offers to occupy the middle berth instead. "Er,...Ok," I say. At which point, with the back door still open, and Ola standing on the pavement, the taxi driver takes off.
Ola is desperately running alongside the accelerating car, and momentarily seems to contemplate making a Hollywood-style dive for the back seat, before deciding better of it. Despite the urgent "Whoa! Stop! Stop!" exclamations from Ola and the other backseat passengers, the taxi driver carries on for some yards, before his finely-tuned sense of spatial awareness eventually enables him to recognize that he's left one of his passengers behind.
It was a suitably entertaining end to a remarkable week.
The 'Road to Reality' conference was hosted by the Stefan Banach Institute of Mathematics on the Monday and Tuesday in Warsaw, and the Copernicus Center in Krakow on the Thursday and Friday. The hospitality throughout was superb, with the quality of the food and wine in Krakow (all gratis) particularly memorable. Roger Penrose himself is a fabulous ambassador for science. He spoke to large audiences of students and members of the public in Warsaw and Krakow, who were hanging on his every word, totally captivated for 90 minutes, as he used his multicoloured hand-drawn slides to explain black holes, the big bang, and his cyclic cosmology theory. He was totally accessible, friendly, patient and good-humoured with everyone.
The week began, however, in a less promising fashion...
Monday evening in Warsaw. It's been raining all day, and I can't hear out of my left ear. I wander out of my accommodation on the first floor of the Stefan Banach Mathematical Institute, and splash through the puddles to a fish-and-chip shop on the other side of the pl. Konstytucji, which James has spotted earlier in the day. As I wait inside for my chips to be cooked, the young English-speaking Pole behind the counter engages me in conversation, and I discover that he has recently spent some time in the UK, living in Brighton to be precise.
"That's an exciting place to live isn't it?" I suggest. "Oh yes," he confirms, "LOTS of pussy." I conclude that he has a fine grasp of colloquial English, take my chips, and return to the Institute.
The problem with my hearing arises from the fact that on my first night in Warsaw, I decided to use some ear plugs to block out the mysterious nocturnal thumping noise coming from the plumbing. Unfortunately, this conspired to compress the wax in my left ear, and on Monday I have great difficulty hearing what people are saying to me. I spend much of Monday morning trying to communicate that I need eardrops, and am guided through the rain-sodden streets of Warsaw to an Apteka (chemist), where it duly transpires that they have nothing useful at all. Back in the Institute, an incredibly kind lady from the admin team helps me to track down a brand of eardrops available in Poland, and gets on a bus to purchase them for me.
Sadly, the drops are ineffective, and on the Tuesday morning I agree that I need to see a doctor. A conference delegate generously steps into the fray, and drives me through the streets of Warsaw to see his own doctor, a lady who apparently serviced the communist regime when they were entrenched in power. En route, I gaze up at one stage to see an alarming image of Robert Kubica grinning back at me, with a can of N-gine in his hand. "Polecam (recommended by) Robert Kubica," claims the billboard poster.
The lady doctor unblocks my auditory system with a variety of hoses and scarily sharp objects that she sticks into my ear, and then tests my hearing by slapping a tuning fork on her knee, before holding the reverberating object in various positions around my head. An American mathematician at the conference, C. Denson Hill, later declares that I will hereafter be remembered to him as 'the earwax guy'!