For every year of the last six, Roche Pharmaceuticals (one of the world's biggest drug companies) has invited 100 students from across Europe to Salzburg, Austria, to take part in a festival commemorating 'Youth! Arts! Science!'. The theme of the gathering is simple and noble; to explore the common ground between the arts and the sciences, namely the need to be creative and innovative.
This year I was fortunate to be one of those students. At a princely 29 years of age it's arguable whether I qualify for 'Youth!', but I guess 2 out of 3 is not bad. And so, I packed my bag and my finest evening garbs, and hopped on a plane to the birthplace of Herr Mozart. I had applied for the festival thinking it would be a nice opportunity to visit a new country, and knowing that the bursary would look good on my CV. Yet as I arrived at my home for the next 6 days, the modern and comfortable Tourismusschule Klessheim on the outskirts of Vienna, I remained completely clueless as to what was in store for my fellow 'Youths!' and I. I was also apprehensive that the whole week would turn into a Clockwork Orange-style indoctrination exercise into the wonders of Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. But thankfully I couldn't be more wrong.
In truth, the very first talk we heard was on how 'Big Pharma' companies are not so big and evil, with the main point being that the earnings of Roche are a fraction of that of companies like Wal-Mart. This of course says nothing about the 'evil' part, but the speaker exuded an enthusiasm that left me in no doubt that she felt the benefit of Roche's drug discoveries went far beyond the profits that came with them. And nonetheless the talk was welcome as we all wanted to know a little more about our generous hosts.
And how generous they were! For the next 6 days each of the 100 students was spoiled to unparalleled levels of pampering. There were gourmet meals every day with limitless wine and champagne even in the early hours of the morning, boxes of Austrian Mozartkügeln chocolates greeting us in our rooms, and front row seats to the most popular shows at the renowned Salzburg Festival of Music and Drama (which Roche is a prominent sponsor of). At these shows, we were waited on with canapés and (more) champagne, were given private audiences with the conductors and performers who were fresh from the stage, and rubbed shoulders with the organisers of the festival. All the while a professional photographer fluttered around taking snapshots of us all dressed in our Sunday best. The illusion of celebrity was impeccable.
But the remarkable thing about the festival, the thing that still makes me look back on that week with fondness a month on, was not the luxury, nor the repeated morning seminars where we discussed the importance of being creative (in my view a fruitless exercise akin to making endless to-do lists without actually doing anything). The glaring charm of the event, by far, were the people that I met while there. It was immediately clear from day one that each of the students had been hand-picked for their achievements and self-evident passion for learning music or science. The abundance of talent that had been gathered was obvious; one night, at a moment's notice an oboe and violin were produced, and a Mozart quartet was reproduced impromptu, just for fun. A quick chat to a spectacled neighbour would lead to enlightening discussions of the latest scientific discoveries and advances. The organisers were genuinely excited to be looking after this small sea of bright faces, and this enthusiasm was truly infectious (even for those of a more skeptical British nature). The result was that throughout the week every face you turned to was smiling and engaging. One that was interesting and interested in exchanging ideas. It was a surreal experience that honestly made me wish that all the people I met day to day were as open-minded and friendly as this little group. Given that everyone there had been selected based on similar interests, perhaps it's not surprising that everyone got along. But I have no doubt that some life-long friendships were made that week.
And being invited to be a part of it all, to be a peer of such illustrious company, was infinitely more rewarding, and endowing of gratitude and humility, than the glamour of a celebrity treatment ever could be.
If you are interested in attending Roche Continents, visit: http://www.roche-continents.net