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Oh Vienna: A River Runs Through the XVIII International AIDS Conference

By River Huston

July 23, 2010

Hello from Vienna! It is the last day of the International AIDS Conference and I have survived! I came here to perform my one-woman show, Sex, Cellulite and Large Farm Equipment: One Girl's Guide to Living and Dying, as well as present a short film I made on women and HIV, A Positive Life. Both went very well.

When I arrived and saw the setting for the performance, I was slightly mortified. It was a very open, large space called the Global Village and besides the performance area you were surrounded by many other distractions. My show is part comedy, part performance and spoken word. It was not the best setting, but like usual I said, "Just do it." (That was my motto way before Nike -- it is how I approach just about everything -- but instead of a muscular, sporty "Just do it!," it sounds more like a tired "Just do it, for God's sake.")

I really thought people would come for the title of my show, and leave mid-performance with confused looks on their faces. It was an international audience and I can offend just about anyone. Fortunately, people needed some comic relief from all the dry PowerPoint presentations read by hundreds of presenters all week -- what I like to call "Death by PowerPoint." Some great info, sure; just not the most interesting delivery system.

The crowd grew till they filled the aisle, the sides and the back of the performance area. They laughed at some of my worst lines and cried when I told the sad parts. A success!

Once it was over, I was relieved. I had been ambivalent about coming to Vienna for several reasons. First and foremost, the money. It's a very expensive conference and I do not think I would have come if I was not performing and presenting. But beyond the money, Vienna has never called to me -- even though my roots are partly in Austria, or at least the ashes of many relatives are.

I was also traveling alone, which is what half my life consists of, so to commit myself to going I booked half a day on a tour of the Mayerling Woods, south of Vienna. I was very excited about this. I had never taken a formal tour before and it kept me motivated as my American Express card hit its limit.

Remind me never to take a tour again. For some people, it is the most educational and interesting thing in the world -- probably the same people who can sit through PowerPoint presentations. Sorry, I am just not that kind of girl. I would rather put forks in my eyes, so I was relieved four hours later when we arrived back at the conference center. The highlight of my tour was the bus driver.

During another exceptionally hot trek through a convent in the woods, I stayed by the bus in the shade talking to the bus driver. Once I said I was from the U.S., he literally sneered at me and said, "U.S.!" and gave me an enthusiastic two thumbs down. "You the worst!"

I know the best way to find out about people is to just agree with them, and for some things -- especially during the Bush years -- I do agree. I know the downfall of our economy has hit many places in the world very hard, so I agreed with this bus driver. And boy, did he give me a list of all the people to blame for the horrors of the world. His tirade continued as I nodded in agreement, but I was stunned once he worked his ire up to the Juden ("Juden," in German, means "Jews")!

"Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Juden! It is their fault for everything!" I thought so! It's the Juden in America that are behind the war, the economy, and -- I am pretty sure the bus driver thinks -- the death of his cat, Goebbels. (Just a disclaimer here: I am being sarcastic, and I am a "Juden.")

Wow, really? I read in my Vienna travel book never to bring up Nazis or World War II because it is not polite, but I estimated him to be in his late 60s -- too young to have goose-stepped with the Nazis during the war -- and here he was telling me the problems of the world were because of the Jews. I decided not to tell him I was Jewish. I mean, we were alone on the bus and he did have a lighter.

But at this point in my life, it did not really bother or shock me too much. In some ways, AIDS can be equated to being a Jew in Europe in the late 1930s and '40s.

At the beginning of the epidemic in the U.S. -- and currently in other countries, especially in the Middle East, parts of Africa, China, matter of fact almost any Third World country -- having HIV was liable to get you ostracized quicker than the woman on Afghan Star (the equivalent of American Idol in Afghanistan) who took off her head scarf and sort of danced during her swan song after being eliminated. You could even be killed -- especially if you enjoy man-to-man sex.

In many parts of U.S. culture, most people act like, "HIV? No problem, it's cool." So many people at this point know someone who is infected. But dig a little deeper and the fear and prejudice are still there. Would you date someone with HIV? Would you marry someone with HIV? How would you feel if your son or daughter was with someone who was HIV positive, or was HIV positive themselves? Then it is different.

It took so many to die before we ever took action. Actually, it took all the activists demonstrating, screaming and organizing rallies to get peoples' attention, and action was lethargic at best. Well, except once the pharmaceutical companies realized what a cash cow AIDS could be, and is. Oh, cynical me!

I live openly with my HIV status, but when I went to make a film based on my 1997 book, A Positive Life, most of the women from the book preferred not to be involved with giving updates or sending new photos; or they wanted detailed information on who would see this film and what it was for. They had come out about their HIV diagnoses briefly when the book was published, but with treatment and the promise of a normal life, why put it out there all over again? Make everyone uncomfortable?

In the presentation of the film at the conference, some of the comments from around the world were in the vein of: "We could never get women to speak openly, let alone be photographed or filmed like this."

Oh boy, it's really that way. I see this disease as a virus. It's the blood. Let's prevent it, treat it, work on a cure. Simplistic thinking, I know. At this conference, I saw how complicated it has become. Many millions are spent on studies to see who has it the most and where it's growing the fastest. Just think, if we treated HIV infection like anything else, how much money we could spend where it is really needed.

If we were all screened for HIV, like we are all screened for cholesterol levels, and taught HIV prevention in the same way we are told how to prevent heart disease, it might be possible to start to take the political, social charge out of it and move on. Not going to happen, but it's a thought.

The best part about these conferences, which I have attended periodically over the last 16 years, is the conversations: in the hallways, the conference's PLWH (people living with HIV) Lounge, and over meals on the streets, in cafes or in restaurants, in countries around the world. It is getting the global perspective on HIV and life in general, directly from someone who lives in Africa, Egypt, Iraq or Europe.

Overall, it was an amazing experience, but I will be happy to be back home with my dogs and chickens, painting in my studio and almost forgetting about this virus lurking in my blood.

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